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Church Post Code PE7 3UB

Church normally closed to visitors

A Look At An English Parish Church During Covid

With sections of this website being concerned with my travels during the covid 19 pandemic I thought that it might be interesting to put through a page detailing how a village church coped with the restrictions placed on it. It was an obvious choice to choose my own village church; the church of St Michael at Chesterton, five miles to the west of Peterborough.  My main worship is with a Salvation Army plant but I take in evening services at this church where I can, and am on the wall mounted christening roll here, so many years ago that it had faded and had to be rewritten.

When Boris Johnson locked the country down for the first time on March 23rd 2020, this was for three months. The Church of England sent out a statement very soon after this, confirming that all churches would be closed for worship and for private prayer. Restrictions were strict, to the extent that advice was given that any livestreaming of worship should come from the priest’s own house and not from within the church itself. The only exception was in the instances where foodbanks were running from churches; with these allowed to continue but under very strict guidance.


So, there was a nationwide closure of churches by law; possibly a unique situation in our history. Very quickly many churches were frantically trying to learn how to livestream services and within a short time there services were taking place on Zoom, Youtube and Facebook. Our churches were closed but in one way they had never been more open!

Three months to the day from the start of the first national covid lockdown the Church of England stated on their website that churches would be allowed to reopen for communal worship from July 4th2020; but under strict guidelines which included the social distancing of those in the congregation, masks to be worn, hands to be sanitised on entry, a ban on communal singing and names and contact phone numbers to be left so that all could be contacted in case of an outbreak. In many cases the Track and Trace app on a mobile phone could scan a church QR code to make it easier to trace people after an outbreak.

At Chesterton, a small village of around 150 people five miles to the west of Peterborough which holds a weekly service with a pattern of alternating morning and evening services, the church doors were first opened here before public worship resumed in early July, with the Government announcing that churches could be open for private prayer from June 13th, albeit under certain conditions. There was to be one entry and one exit point (such as entry in through the south porch and exit via a priest’s door), doors and windows were to be kept open to aid ventilation and there was a strict regime of cleaning which is one reason why many churches were not able to open to visitors on successive days. The report made note of the mental health benefits of a person being able to go in to and pray in their own church.

With regards the cleaning, I saw several times on my travels individual A4 posters on the seats that were being used, which were to be turned over after someone had used that seat, the reverse side indicating that this seat now needed to be cleaned.


Many churches wished to open as soon as possible; but the Church Times ran an article on June 12th 2020 raising the concerns of some people regarding the opening and cleaning of churches. The article quotes some family members concerned that the people who would be opening up and cleaning the churches were the elderly, who were those most at risk from this illness.

Chesterton church was open for an hour on a Sunday morning and for an hour one morning in the week. Anyone who wanted to could attend and pray quietly, sit in silence or read a book; whatever gave them some peace. Those entering were still to sanitise, mask up and leave their contact details just in case!

Communal worship resumed at Chesterton as soon as they could after that July 4th date. Normal prayer services were straight forward but communion services came with their own problems. A statement issued by the Church of England on the day that churches were open again for communal worship, gave guidelines for the communion service. These included the sharing of the peace being prohibited, bread only instead of bread and wine, with the vicar being the only one to take both, altar rails not to be touched and the bread (or preferably wafers) being covered until used. This statement acknowledged that it was not possible for the vicar to administer the bread without getting closer than two metres from the communicant.

It was also advised that hand sanitiser be used before communion; the result being a whole stream of subsequent photographs of chancels where there was a bottle of hand sanitiser in the piscina against the south wall. This was possibly the first use that piscina had been put to since the reformation and the photographs taken with hand sanitiser present gave ideal dating evidence for future generations looking back at them!

Logistically, there were things to work out with regards the actual going up to the altar rails to take communion. The communicants at Chesterton went up at socially acceptable distance and came back to their chairs by turning right at the chancel arch and making their way back to their seats via north aisle.


As the months wore on one small problem occurred that hadn’t been anticipated. This didn’t apply to Chesterton who didn’t have their service projected on screens. For those who did, those in the congregation who wore spectacles and a mask soon realised how quickly their spectacles steamed up and how difficult it was to follow the service.

The Harvest Festival that year took place, outside rather than inside on a gloriously sunny and warm Sunday afternoon; reminding me in a much smaller scale of the outdoor services at Eyam, the Plague village, as they quarantined themselves during the Bubonic Plague of the 17th century. Getting on for 30 people were socially isolated in the large church grounds at St Michael. Personally this would go down as one of the most pleasant services that I had attended for some time. The lack of traffic on the main road 150 yards away and no planes flying overhead helping to provide a real sense of peace and calm!


In December 2020, we came to the annual Nine Lesson and Carols candlelit service; a favourite service for many, over many years. I can remember reading out a lesson at this service when I was about ten years old.

Things were tough nationally; the second national lockdown having been introduced in early November. This finished in late November and was replaced by a three tier system of restrictions; medium, high and very high. Chesterton is a small village and we were in the lowest tier accordingly and we were free to worship.

The Nine Lessons and Carols were due to be held on Sunday December 20th 2020. On the day before, a statement was made by Boris Johnson stating that, due to the concerns over rising cases a fourth tier was introduced; ‘stay at home’! One of the areas which was placed in this highest tier was Peterborough, which included a small part of our neighbouring village of Alwalton.

Half an hour before the service was due to take place there was a discussion among those setting up. The service was due to be led by someone from a tier four area and they couldn’t cross the tier boundary. Possibly some of the readers might not turn up so alternative readers were lined up just in case. The service was going to be led by two church members and the attitude was that this service would go ahead, even if there were just half a dozen of us there! In the end, all of the readers turned up and around 20 people turned up for the service, with all being masked and two meters apart from each other.

Those reading this might say ‘it’s just a service’; but this was important for people. It had been an integral part of the church calendar for many years and it would only be taken away if it was absolutely necessary. People had lost enough already! As someone said to me later, there wasn’t a want for this service, there was a need and that need was met! I always took in a midnight communion at neighbouring Alwalton church on Christmas Eve. This was not held in 2020 and I, and thousands of others throughout the country I daresay, looked to bring in Christmas morning in a different way. I chose a live Youtube stream from the church of St Paul in Jersey! As I said earlier in this piece, in some ways the church had never been so open.

The photograph on the right is the cover of the service sheet for the service of Nine Lesson and Carols, complete with a few drips of candle wax. The rest of the melted wax would invariably have ended up on my jacket!

service sheet.jpg

To break off from St Michael, Chesterton for a time and look at things nationally, 2020 was an Annus horribilis, a truly terrible year. During that year I travelled as much as I could; churchcrawling where possible, always adhering to covid rules and regulations. During those travels I was getting more and more dispirited about the numbers of churches in which the doors were soundly locked! This is said with my practicing Christian head on, not my churchcrawling head!

It was hard times, people were struggling. What an ideal time for the churches to open up, even those that would have been closed to visitors pre covid. A place to sit and find a little peace and calm as the world appears to implode outside. What I found was a succession of closed churches, including one which was closed but had a sign up asking for money to help them through this tough financial time for them. My comments on this are not to repeated on here but I made them known to Gary who was driving that day and who is not a Christian over the course of the next hour or two! I totally take on board what the Church Times article stated about the people doing the opening up and the cleaning being those most at risk but surely something might have been possible in some of these churches to keep the doors open!

During the spring of 2020 someone wrote a letter to one of the national newspapers, asking ‘Where are the Christians, the church doors are locked’. A valid question! I am sure that the Christians were doing the same as many non believers; helping out those with a need. The question is valid though, why are the doors locked? There was more need for the doors to be open at this time that at any time since World War Two. Spiritually, we missed a trick!


Early in 2021 things were still very poor with very high infection and death rates; so much so that at the end of December 75% of the country was placed under the highest tier. On January 6th 2021 the third national lockdown was introduced. This had the same rules as the first lockdown but some gatherings were permitted, including religious services.

Things gradually improved. We didn’t have to wear masks any more or have to sign in with contact details. We could sing again and most churches eventually dispensed with hand sanitiser. It appeared strange when the two metre isolation came in and then it seemed strange when we were allowed to site together again. Numbers in the congregations went down throughout the country and gradually improved, but many churches that I have attended since have reported in that numbers have never got back to their pre covid levels. This is being typed out at the end of February 2024; nearly four years after the first lockdown was started and still people share the peace by staying in their place and waving rather than greeting them in person.

Chesterton church dates back to the 12th century. In its time it has stood through the Black Death and Bubonic Plague; through a Civil War and Two World Wars. It has stood through the upheaval of the Reformation and now it has stood through the covid pandemic!

With the exception of the photographs of the outdoor harvest festival, all of the exterior photographs on this page were taken around three weeks in to the first national lockdown in April 2020.

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