By Tim Wyatt
This week has marked the most important period in the Christian calendar. Starting with Palm Sunday last weekend, Christians across the country would normally track the final week of Jesus’s life throughout Holy Week through to Easter Sunday with services, processions, rituals, songs, prayers and meals.
On Maundy Thursday, believers remember the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples, with many priests, vicars and pastors washing the feet of their congregation just as Christ did.
Then on Good Friday, it is common for churches to hold processions through their communities, often collaborating with other denominations, before then holding solemn services marking the crucifixion.
Finally, Easter Sunday ordinarily is the apex of the church year, with Christians packing into churches for exuberant services to celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.
Of course, almost none of this is possible in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and government rules that have forced all places of worship to shut and people to stay at home.
Instead, the past few weeks have seen a burst of creativity as church leaders and congregations have tried to improvise alternatives. Most churches are planning to do some kind of online service, either by livestreaming via YouTube or Facebook, or hosting a virtual meeting using platforms such as Zoom.
Larger denominations are also offering centrally organised services, in part so that smaller congregations unable to master the technology required can still participate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Justin Welby, has recorded from his kitchen on his iPad an Easter Sunday sermon that will be stitched into a series of other videos by Anglican figures for the Church of England’s own Easter Sunday livestream.
“After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS,” he will say, “we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life.” The service will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 4.
Some are attempting to mimic the practice of Easter vigils, by posting videos of prayers, Bible readings, reflections and songs online for the faithful to follow throughout the week and in particular from Good Friday to Sunday.
A group of clergy from Anglican cathedrals have organised an ambitious live Easter vigil of short videos from some leading clerics, theologians, poets and writers which they hope thousands of Christians will follow live online from Easter Saturday evening all the way through the night until Canterbury Cathedral lights an Easter bonfire to mark the resurrection.
Exeter Cathedral has gone down a slightly different route and is putting on a virtual egg hunt on its website, encouraging children to zoom into each image to find the eggs hiding in plain sight.
But much of normal Easter celebrations have had to be put on hold. For the first time since she came to the throne 68 years ago, the Queen was unable to distribute Maundy money to pensioners in person and instead sent the traditional gifts by post.
Another tradition which has bit the dust are passion plays – large-scale amateur dramatisations of the crucifixion narrative from the Bible. Several of these, including one due to be performed in Trafalgar Square which has drawn thousands of visitors in the past, have been cancelled.
Although there have been some sporadic voices arguing exceptions should be made to the closing of churches because of the importance of the Easter festival, most Christians appear to have accepted this Easter will be an unprecedented one and are adapting to the unusual circumstances.
Kate Pellereau, a Church of England ordinand (trainee vicar) in Oxfordshire, said: “I have been drawing Holy Week messages on my window, so on Sunday I will add ‘He is Risen.’ I am also trying to bring some Easter joy to my neighbours, the people who are here when my family are not – I am planning on making Easter cakes and leaving them on people’s doorsteps.
“Instead of a run, I will, I hope, have a nice sunny walk in a park with all the beautiful flowers reminding me that Jesus is risen and there is hope. I will miss most the moment when the vicar says ‘He is risen’ and then we all reply ‘He is risen indeed, hallelujah.’ That moment of collectively declaring that Jesus is risen and death is defeated. I think that I won’t feel as much a part of the Christian community – I’ll still be joyful, but it won’t be the same. Considering shouting it to my street when I wake up!”
Ian Wyllie, outside Southampton: “I’m a resident in a care home. I’ve been isolated for 14 days in my room in addition to us being closed in overall. In all this I’ve still been able to participate in our local benefice, and to help them in preparing for this most unusual Easter. The first Easter was a time of uncertain craziness. This one is, too. In this instance of pandemic, our time and the time of our Lord on the cross collide. This epidemic will reshape my discipleship so long as I shall live.”
Cathy Madavan helps lead a Baptist church in Hampshire: “It’s hard to imagine not being with our church family at Waypoint Church this Easter. As church leaders, we feel saddened to be isolated, but we also feel proud of how our church has risen to the challenge of serving the vulnerable in our community so wholeheartedly. We might not be meeting in the same building, but we still all follow and serve the same risen Saviour. Nothing can hold hope down – this is the message of Easter and it is alive and well, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
“At home, we will miss being gathered as an extended family around the dining table. We have created online sermons, kids’ resources to download and I’ve sent an Easter egg hunt to my daughter still living in her university town. But it’s just not the same as being together to celebrate what is, for us, one of the most significant days of the year.”
Francis Young, a Church of England Reader (lay preacher and church leader) in East Anglia: “I’m a reader in the Church of England, married to a vicar, so for both of us Easter at home means spending hours recording segments of services and then painstakingly putting them together with video editing software that we have only just got to grips with. It’s hard to make this process feel spiritual, although we hope the final product will be something that the congregation finds spiritually uplifting.
“We watch what we have produced along with everyone else, but it is obviously not the same experience for us because we know what has gone into it; so yes, it is harder for us to mark Easter in a personal way because we are always presenting to the rest of the church.”
Bethany Bremner, from Oxfordshire: “Obviously it is hard not being with family. Mum and I usually split the cooking. It is a way both of us show love to the rest of the family as well as having fun together. However our day is actually pretty full! We have two church services and three video meet-ups on the calendar already.
“We’re putting up Easter messages in the window and singing hymns with the windows open. On other years if has felt like we talk a lot about spreading the hope of Easter, but just with other Christians! This year we are actually doing it.”