I wrote a pastoral message for you all during the early part of this week, but in the light of the announcement made by the Government just a few days ago, that South Yorkshire would move into Tier 3 with regard to the Covid-19 restrictions, it felt necessary to change the nature of the message that I offer to you all this weekend.
This latest announcement now means that a large proportion of the District is under Tier 3 restrictions, much of the remainder is under Tier 2 restrictions and a small part of the District is still designated as Tier 1. The fact that we all find ourselves in different situations, doesn't necessarily make it easy to offer one generic message to you all.
However, the overriding factors in all of this, are the need for all of us to take seriously our responsibilities towards one another and our desire to keep ourselves and everyone else as safe as possible.
Working with the guidance offered by both the Government and the Methodist Church, many of you have made the decision to open your places of worship in recent weeks and that guidance still allows places of worship to remain open, even in areas which are living with tighter restrictions such as those of you in South Yorkshire.
However, this permission within the guidance is just that, permission! Just because we are allowed to do something does not necessarily mean that we should! We are under no obligation to open our church buildings for worship, although I understand entirely why being able to do so in a Covid secure way will have been a blessing to many of you.
The responsibility for making decisions regarding the opening of our church buildings lies, of course, with the local Managing Trustees (Church Councils). You will be the ones with the most local knowledge to bring to the assessment of risk, but I would encourage all local Trustee bodies to make such decisions in liaison with Circuit staff and office holders so that you can support each other in these challenging matters.
For those parts of the District that find yourselves under Tier 3 restrictions, I urge you to think very carefully about whether it is now appropriate for churches to remain open, given the rising infection rates your communities are experiencing. We have a duty of care to one another and to those alongside whom we live and work.
The gospel passage in the lectionary for this weekend, Matthew 22 v 34-46, talks about one of many occasions when a group of Pharisees confronted Jesus with some questions. The Pharisees, of course, were a group of religious leaders who were incredibly knowledgeable about the law and fastidious and pious about their keeping of it.
On this occasion they wanted to get Jesus' view on the greatest commandment in the Law. His response came in two parts – "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and also "Love your neighbour as yourself."
We may wonder why Jesus responds with two commandments rather than just one, but this seems to be all part of encouraging the Pharisees to move on from their simple awareness of the need to love God to a personal practice of loving God by loving others.
I recognise that gathering for worship is an important aspect of expressing our love for God, but in these challenging days, I encourage you to consider whether it might be more appropriate to express our love for God by expressing our love and concern for others and keeping everyone as safe as possible.
It's my prayer that all of us will make good and wise decisions in these difficult times and that through those decisions we might find it possible to express both our love for God and our love for our neighbour.
Gill Newton, District Chair