Your breath is bated, your pulse is pounding, your palms sweaty as you perch on the edge of your chair, shaking with anticipation to know the answer: did it work? Yes, in the footsteps of other Messy Churches who’ve been much quicker off the mark, my own Messy Church in a Hampshire village has tried out the suggestion for meeting again in a Covid-secure way. So I thought I’d write it up with as much honesty as I can muster, in case you’re thinking, ‘It all looks fine on paper, but in real life…?’
Firstly, we owe so much to our fellow team members. Without one person’s determination to do it, we would all have wimped out. It was Anne’s conviction that we need to be back together again as a congregation that shamed me out of my laziness and risk-aversion into helping make it happen. And without the encouragement of the vicar, I don’t know if we would have been able to, either. Using the church building means fitting in with other services, so leaving Messy things lying around for 72 hours becomes a big deal. I would quite like my own funeral to take place between tables of David and Goliath activities, but it might not appeal to everyone. And Messy Jane also pushed me into doing it, not only for the sake of my own community, but for the wider Messy community too, who might take confidence in knowing I’d given it a whirl with real people. So reflection #1: We need to be in teams.
We set up on Thursday night for the Messy Church session on the Sunday afternoon, so that the equipment could all sit for 72 hours. The whole process was rather like cooking a stirfry: all the hard work was in the preparation (advertising to the families locally, a robust booking system, selecting suitable activities, creating the instructions sheets, packing a trug for each table with every possible item they might require, making sure each member of the team is confident what their role is and how they need to stay safe and keep others safe…) and the actual delivery was super-easy. Especially compared with a normal Messy Church! Reflection #2: The structure provided for Covid times could be useful in more normal times for a church who genuinely have a very small team but who want to do something for families. It’s not Messy Church but it works, for a given value of ‘works’.
The families who booked in were all inherited church families with none who were solely Messy ones. Perhaps the need to commit in advance is a step too far; perhaps the publicity just didn’t get as far as them; perhaps it was too close to the start of the new school year the next day. Reflection #3: Missionally, we failed. Pastorally and fellowship-wise, it was valuable for those who came. Can it be truly Messy Church without that outward-facing edge? Arguably not: I could sense how easy it would be to become a very closed little community indeed – a trap churches have fallen into too much in the past.
Of course there were hiccups: two extra families had booked in after the deadline, so while spare tables had been set up ‘just in case’, they needed to be provided with all the materials and equipment on the day, which contravened the 72-hour rule but was done in a sanitised way nonetheless. One team member was called into work unexpectedly, so his brother took his place. The table for four turned out to be a table for two as illness had struck one family. But all this was easily dealt with. Reflection #4: Doing a proper Messy Church makes you into an expert and chilled problem-solver, unfazed by anything life throws at you.
The families arrived in a naturally staggered way – there were only six, so it was very straightforward to get them safely to their table with no contact with others. The children were delighted to see their friends but very disciplined about saying in their own space. Reflection #5: People are nice and on side. It’s not a battle.
With the team and adult members in masks, it’s very hard to show how delighted you are to see everyone – your smile is covered over. Reflection #6: Smiles and body language are such an important part of a normal Messy Church.
The restrictions meant that the families simply got on with their activities happily without the usual mingling and chatting. We lost the easy friendly aspect of Messy Church, but we gained a focus on the activities and huge concentration of the adults joining in with their own children, rather than leaving it to a team member to do all the messy work while they had a chat with their friends. Reflection #7: Not sure if that’s a good thing or not: it was just a thing.
The celebration was in the round, which was lovely. A team member played and sang to us while the activities came to an end as a way of transitioning, but carefully chose a song nobody knew, so we couldn’t sing along. We listened to the story and prayed together and joined in the Lord’s Prayer with actions together, as well as the Messy Grace. Reflection #8: We need to change the actions for the Messy Grace as we can’t hold hands. Maybe ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ could be said with a big wave to everyone else instead.
Leaving in a staggered way was easy as we asked each family to put their rubbish in a sack and the rest of their stuff in a trug and they all did this at different speeds, so departed at different times. Then ran round the churchyard together with wild abandon. Reflection #9: Would it be possible to invite people to bring a snack picnic to eat outside afterwards, if they’re going to hang about anyway?
The team chatted and left. We were home very quickly afterwards. Nobody was exhausted. Everyone was relaxed. Reflection #10: That was pleasant.
One team member came down with a headache and temperature two days later. Testing has not yet happened. Reflection #11: In the light of this, whatever the outcome of the test, I am deeply relieved we kept to the letter of the law of the risk assessment we created. We are still in such uncertain times. We can’t yet take shortcuts.
Final reflection: it was very good to be back together in person. Zoom screens are not ideal for children or for adults. Jesus moved among us despite our restrictions. But it was a far cry from the usual edgy, open-to-all, happy freedom of a normal Messy Church and, while better than nothing, leaves me longing for the blessing of newcomers and strangers, the togetherness, hospitality, food, abundance, touch, different forms of communication and worship and the exuberant messiness that we’ve come to love.