AS normal life came to an abrupt halt two months ago due to the coronavirus-enforced lockdown, so too did regular church services.

Weddings, baptisms and Sunday worship were all suspended indefinitely, while attendances at funerals have been severely limited.

So just how have local ministers and congregations responded and adapted during the crisis, and what does the future look like for Helensburgh and Lomond’s religious institutions post-Covid-19?


A fortnight ago the Catholic Church told members that traditional parish life cannot resume until a vaccine for the virus is found, or until treatment is made available, meaning it will be at least 2021 before parishes can fully re-open.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government’s ‘route map’ out of the Covid-19 lockdown, published last week, states that places of worship will be able to open for private prayer under physical distancing rules and hygiene safeguards – but not until phase two of the proposals, which may still be several weeks away.

For Rev Maggie McArthur, minister at Cardross Parish Church, the closure of church for public worship and all the other groups and activities that normally frequent them has been a great loss.

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“Not being able to meet together physically is the worst thing of all,” she told the Advertiser.

“Families are experiencing that in their own way too, as the church family is.

“We’re just trying to keep in touch with our congregation through phone calls, emails and cards, keeping the business of the church going through using Zoom, which is a great tool.

“Those who don’t have access to the internet we’re supplying DVDs to keep them connected and that is the main thing, to ensure that they are still connected to the church.”

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rev Maggie McArthur delivers an online sermonRev Maggie McArthur delivers an online sermon

Embracing technology has become an important theme among many businesses, institutions and individuals in the absence of face-to-face gatherings and Maggie says it has helped churches reach audiences they would otherwise be unable to.

She said: “It’s not the same as being with people, it is different, but it’s necessary.

“The one thing I miss most is everybody singing together, because that’s quite a wonderful experience hearing lots of people singing together.

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“We’re actually getting far more people tuning in online than we would get on a Sunday morning.

“People are looking for some kind of solace. At times of crisis we look for something that can give us some kind of hope and as Christians we believe in the one who never changes even though everything else is chaotic and changing around us; God never changes. That gives us a firm foundation.”

Easter, usually a joyous occasion for so many, was described by Maggie as “very strange” this year, while restricted funeral services have also proved heartbreakingly difficult for everyone involved.

Although times are hard and there is much to be uncertain about, a key message remains.

“We mustn’t lose hope. There’s always got to be hope because without it there’s nothing worth going on for,” Maggie said.

“All things pass and this will too. We take encouragement from the way people are helping each other and reaching out in different ways to make sure that everyone is cared for and no-one is forgotten.”

Advertiser columnist Rev Ian Miller, who retired in 2012 but is still a well-known face at churches across Helensburgh, Lomond, Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven, said the initial shock of the situation for him was in “accepting the unacceptable”.

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Ian, who is currently providing locum cover at Lomond Parish Church in Balloch, said: “I remember thinking on April 5 that must have been the first time in almost 70 years where I had not been in a place of worship on Palm Sunday.

“Then it was a case of adopting new patterns of engaging with people.

“Nicola Sturgeon tells us that when we as a society slowly emerge from this crisis it will be to a new normal. The same will be true of the church.

“Some of the old ways may need to be jettisoned and a new, perhaps punchier, way of communicating be adopted.”

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rev Ian MillerRev Ian Miller

Ian says the biggest challenge he has faced has been in the number of funerals conducted during lockdown.

“In the first eight weeks of lockdown I conducted 64 funerals,” he said.

“For the same period last year it was 30. A staggering increase probably greatly due to Covid-19.

“For me there has been a great sadness that I have been unable to call on the bereaved families. It has always been a privilege to listen to the stories, to share the laughter as well as the tears.”

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He was also faced with a personal dilemma at the start of the pandemic.

Being over the age of 70 and declared vulnerable, Ian had to decide whether to continue conducting funerals, potentially putting himself and his family at risk, or keep serving the community which he says has served him so well since he arrived in the area from Kilbarchan in 1974.

After choosing the latter, he said: “I have been helped by all the local undertakers, the gravediggers and crematorium staff.

“They too are part of the great band of unsung heroes and I thank them for all they are doing to make the saddest of all times a little more bearable.

“I believe we will come through it and I believe the church will have a part to play.

“I hope and pray that we all might see that, in light of what we are facing, material things don’t matter too much.

“If it means that instead of being Great Britain, we become a fairer and more caring Britain, I think that might win a few more votes. I hope the church will take that message on board as well.”

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Dom Ind, rector at St Michael and All Angels Church in Helensburgh, said that virtual meetings, while far from ideal, have gradually become the new norm after footfall at Sunday services dropped from around 150 weekly worshippers to zero.

The most disappointing aspect of the current situation for him has been the inability to open the church’s doors seven days a week to anyone in the community when they need support.

And he also reflected on the impact upon families who have been unable to pay their last respects to loved ones in the way they would wish.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rev Dom Ind is rector at St Michael and All Angels Church in Helensburgh, where pews are likely to remain empty for some timeRev Dom Ind is rector at St Michael and All Angels Church in Helensburgh, where pews are likely to remain empty for some time

“This is a moment when we gather often in large numbers to show our support and we are often overtly demonstrative in showing our love and care,” he said.

“What we’re doing at the moment is alien to our nature, and it is right that we do so, but it is costly, and we have to allow our head to rule our heart and do as we’ve been instructed.”

Local heroes and caring communities continue to provide positive sides to the story of a generation and Dom has been comforted by the reaction of his own congregation.

He added: “Two things that have particularly struck me about the community at St Michael’s are the closeness of our members and the desire to put their faith into action.

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“They are a phenomenally hard-working congregation who want to live out what it means to care for your neighbour.

“As rector, anything I’ve asked for us to respond to, like making scrubs, a phone call or collecting shopping, they’re on it pretty damn quick.

“I’ve seen a wonderful response from a very dedicated group who don’t just care about St Michael’s but the people of Helensburgh and Lomond and beyond.

“It’s a real privilege to be rector here and these last couple of months I’ve witnessed the people of St Michael’s at their best.”

In a discussion paper released by the United Reformed Church (URC), meanwhile, members noted that the pandemic and its aftermath present huge challenges to churches, but also an opportunity for change.

The document says: “The most vulnerable, including those over the age of 70, are likely to be the last to be able to fully reintegrate into society.

“Given the demographic of our churches that means that our common life together is not likely to get to a recognisable “normal” until, probably, the middle of 2021 at the earliest, and perhaps for much, much longer.

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“Church life as we know it will be different for a long time, perhaps forever, and rather than being fearful of this, we have an opportunity to shape how we will live well through the pandemic and emerge stronger – yes, stronger – on the other side.

“This is, we pray, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do things better.

“We can have a new vision of what we want our churches to be like – what they might become rather than what they have been.

“There are so many things that we have been doing that were and are the right things, and we don’t need to throw them away. But nothing should unthinkingly be carried forwards.”

Rev Mitchell Bunting is the URC’s minister in both Helensburgh and Dumbarton, and also has pastoral oversight for the church’s congregations at Morison Memorial in Clydebank and at Drumchapel Essenside in Glasgow.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rev Mitchell Bunting (a.k.a. 'Bungie')Rev Mitchell Bunting (a.k.a. 'Bungie')

He started modifying his own behaviour before the lockdown came into force by stopping shaking hands at the end of services.

And while he already had some experience of using video links to conduct services, many of the new practices have taken a lot of getting used to.

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“April 5, Palm Sunday, marked the start of Holy Week, when we would normally have midweek services as well,” he said.

“I decided, with my colleague, a student minister on placement with us, to record a 10 minute devotional video for each day of Holy Week, culminating in a celebratory pre-recorded communion service for Easter.

“People at home were invited to have ready bread and wine to share, or whatever equivalents they could find in their kitchens.

“Communion is a very physical expression of sharing together.

“Doing this on a video, not even live, seems very odd, but I prefaced my words by saying we believe the Holy Spirit can overcome our differences of time and space – as well as the limitations of our kitchen cupboards.

“That evening, like so many other churches around the country, I began a weekly online gathering on Zoom with a short time of worship, prayer and a chance to chat together in small online groups.

“We already had a monthly evening service, but it was now clear we could sustain this weekly in this new online format.

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“After several weeks we have settled into this pattern of a pre-recorded video upload for people to view at 11am, or whenever they wish and then an online gathering in the evening.

“As time goes on we are aware it will not be straightforward to return to public worship and other uses of our premises.

“One of the aspects we are likely to maintain will be the weekly online gathering.

“This has allowed people from the four different towns to regularly meet together for worship and I can be there each time, rather than being in a different place each week.

“The mornings will be different, and as yet we don’t know how different.”

Rev David Young, minister at Helensburgh and Rhu and Shandon parish churches, also hailed the benefits of technology and said the current struggles will leave a lasting impact on churches.

He said: “Helensburgh and Rhu and Shandon parish churches have ensured that, while the buildings are closed, the church is very much open, active and engaged.

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“Church elders are phoning members in their districts for regular catch-up conversations and making sure that everyone has what they need.

“We’ve set up WhatsApp groups for people to connect and we have a dedicated team of volunteers who are doing shopping and prescription runs for people who are self-isolating or shielding.

“In terms of worship we have been providing weekly online services which have been well received on YouTube and fellowship is maintained in the form of a weekly virtual coffee morning utilising the wonders of Zoom and online in our Facebook group.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rev David T YoungRev David T Young

“Meetings of the Kirk Session have been held to ensure compliance with charity law et cetera around annual accounts and again the wonders of Zoom and telephone conference facilities have proved invaluable.

“There’s no doubt that technology will continue to be utilised when this is over – we’ve had people tune in to our online worship from America, Ireland and even West Sussex!”

He added: “Someone once told me that the Church of Scotland has the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a juggernaut when it comes to change.

“The current crisis has proved that we can adapt and overcome when we have no other choice.”

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