Across faiths in England, pandemic alters worship, rites

Across faiths in England, pandemic alters worship, rites

As his 3-year-old son Tzvi looks on, Rabbi Mordechai Chalk leads a service for his congregation via a teleconference app from his home in London on Friday, June 19, 2020, just before sunset. Taking services online-only has been particularly challenging for the Orthodox Jewish community, members of which are proscribed from using electronics on Shabbat, their day of rest. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

London and its environs are home to a notable diversity of faiths and flocks. Rites that have been the bedrock of their beliefs for centuries had to evolve swiftly during the pandemic lockdown to be safe and relevant for the faithful amid global uncertainty.

London and its environs are home to a notable diversity of faiths and flocks. Rites that have been the bedrock of their beliefs for centuries had to evolve swiftly during the pandemic lockdown to be safe and relevant for the faithful amid global uncertainty.

In the Hertfordshire county village of Northchurch, Anglicans normally worship in the more than 1,000-year-old St. Mary’s Church. That ended March 24 when the Church of England closed all its buildings, and Canon Rev. Jonathan Gordon began recording and broadcasting weekly services via smartphone with the help of Rachel Gordon, his wife.

“It posed an immediate and immense challenge,” Gordon said. “It meant that we had to completely rethink how we did everything.”

After each prayer session, workers in full-body protective suits sanitize any surface that may have been touched at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as the Neasden Temple, in London on Friday, July 3, 2020. The magnificent temple of carved stone constructed according to ancient Vedic architectural texts usually welcomes thousands of visitors a day but now gets just a trickle of devotees who book appointments online first to keep the crowds down. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Volunteers and staff at the Cambridge Central Mosque in Cambridge, England, welcome worshippers to the first Friday communal prayers since lockdown, on Friday, July 10, 2020. Imam Ali Tos has found solace in a slow reopening and the mosque’s essential role in the lives of the faithful. “The mosque is not only a place of worship for Muslims,” the imam says. “It is the center of our lives.” (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

The Rev. Jonathan Gordon, left, and Assistant Vicar Miranda Sheldon, right, greet Anglican worshippers who attended their first communal prayer service after pandemic restrictions were eased, at St. Mary’s Church, Northchurch in Berkhamsted, England, on Sunday, July 5, 2020. On March 24, the Church of England closed all its buildings. “It posed an immediate and immense challenge,” Gordon says. “It meant that we had to completely rethink how we did everything.” (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

A sign reading “Keep Calm and Pray” sits at the side entrance of the Anglican St. Mary’s Church in Northchurch, England, opened up for in-person prayer on Friday, May 22, 2020. When the Church of England closed all its buildings, the Rev. Jonathan Gordon began recording and broadcasting weekly services on a smartphone with the help of his wife, Rachel Gordon. “It posed an immediate and immense challenge,” Gordon said. “It meant that we had to completely rethink how we did everything.” (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

In Neasden, a suburb northwest of London, a magnificent Hindu temple of carved stone constructed according to ancient Vedic architectural texts usually welcomes thousands of visitors a day. Now the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir gets just a trickle of devotees who book appointments online first to keep the crowds down and are told to wear face masks.

Everywhere there are reminders of the unusual times: Instead of donation boxes, smart screen devices flashing images of Hindu deities allow for contactless donations, and after each prayer session, workers in full-body protective suits swoop in to spray and sanitize any surface that may have been touched.

On a recent day at a suburban home in Hemel Hempstead, three female members of the Patel family dressed in their best saris watched attentively in their living room as Hindu swamis and gurus spoke to them through their video screen. “That is what we would have worn to the temple,” said Hemali Patel, “so it felt only right to dress for the occasion.”

Taking worship services virtual has been particularly challenging for the Orthodox Jewish community, members of which are proscribed from using electronics on Shabbat, their day of rest. Rabbi Mordechai Chalk broadcasts video services from his home Fridays just before sunset, as Shabbat nears.

“L’chaim,” he toasted in Hebrew recently, connected to the congregation via Zoom. His children ran into the picture in their pajamas to peer curiously at his laptop, before Shira Chalk, his wife, whisked them away for a bedtime story.

Aagna Patel, 16, Pushpa Patel, 68, Hemali Patel 42, dressed in their best saris, watch Guru Pujya Swayamprakashdas speak to them through their television screen in the comfort of their living room in their suburban home in Hemel Hempstead, England, on Sunday, June 14, 2020. “That is what we would have worn to the temple,” said Hemali, “so it felt only right to dress for the occasion.” (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Rabbi David Mason leads the first Sunday communal prayer service which was streamed to his congregation from the Muswell Hill Synagogue parking lot in London on Sunday, July 5, 2020. The prayer took place outdoors with social distancing to comply with government health guidelines. Mason said he took joy from knowing tech-savvy volunteers were spending hours on the phone patiently helping older community members get online for services. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Members of the public look at giant puppets that are part of an annual pilgrimage that was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, at an exhibit in the nave of St. Albans Cathedral in St. Albans, England, on Thursday, July 2, 2020. The cathedral, one of the largest in England, opened its doors for in-person worship as the government eased coronavirus restrictions. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Nestled in the Chiltern Hills northwest of London, the Buddhist Amvrati monastery decided to simply close its doors and retreat inward to protect the communal way of life of its yellow-robed monks.

The monastery, whose name translates from the sacred Buddhist language of Pali as “deathless realm,” takes delivery drops at the back gate, and it took multiple rounds of negotiations before an AP journalist was allowed to enter, wearing a mask and gloves and observing strict social distancing.

Spokesman Ajahn Dhammanando said the reopening of the temple as the United Kingdom emerges from coronavirus lockdowns will happen with the utmost caution to avoid spreading COVID-19, and for the time being only for certain functions such as funeral ceremonies.

At the Cambridge Central Mosque in the city of the same name, Imam Ali Tos has found solace in a slow reopening and the mosque’s essential role in the lives of the faithful. Mats are now spaced a meter and a half apart during communal prayers, and worshippers are asked to bring their own. People’s names and numbers are meticulously collected for possible contact-tracing purposes.

Hindu worshippers offer prayers at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as the Neasden Temple, in London on Friday, July 3, 2020. The temple of carved stone constructed according to ancient Vedic architectural texts usually welcomes thousands of visitors a day but now gets just a trickle of devotees who book appointments online first to keep the crowds down. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Monks Ajahn Kongrit, right, Tan Jalito, left, and Tan Narindo, center, discuss the logistics of live online streaming the Moon Day puja and precept ceremony to their community from Amvrati Buddhist Temple, which is currently closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic in Great Gaddesden, England, on Sunday, June 28, 2020. Spokesman Ajahn Dhammanando said the reopening of the temple as the United Kingdom emerges from coronavirus lockdowns will happen with the utmost caution. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Worshippers at the Cambridge Central Mosque in Cambridge, England, attend the first Friday communal prayers since lockdown on Friday, July 10, 2020. Mats are now spaced apart during communal prayers, and worshippers are asked to bring their own. Attendees’ names and phone numbers were collected for possible contact tracing purposes. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

“The mosque is not only a place of worship for Muslims,” the imam said, “it is the center of our lives.”

Rabbi David Mason, who heads an Orthodox synagogue in North London, recalled going to a Jewish cemetery to preside over a funeral and being “aghast” at the rows of new graves, often several people being interred the same day.

“It really hit me, you know, the number of dead that we’ve got,” Mason said. “And that’s one cemetery of many.”

But religions have endured trauma countless times before, and indeed, many of the tenets of faith held dear today were born out of hardship and suffering. And today’s pandemic has not been without its lighter moments.

Mason said he took joy from knowing tech-savvy volunteers were spending hours on the phone patiently helping older community members get online for services.

“My high point during lockdown was when a 90-year-old lady came onto a Sunday night talk and explained how delighted she was,” the rabbi said. “That’s how communal collaboration works. I watched it work, and it was just wonderful.”

The Rev. Jonathan Gordon, second right, and Assistant Vicar Miranda Sheldon, second left, greet Anglican worshippers who attended their first communal prayer service after pandemic restrictions were eased, at St. Mary’s Church in Northchurch, England, on Sunday, July 5, 2020. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Saisha Ashraf, right, briefs volunteers on the protocols for allowing worshippers into the Cambridge Central Mosque for communal prayer in Cambridge, England, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Imam Ali Tos has found solace in a slow reopening and the mosque’s essential role in the lives of the faithful. “The mosque is not only a place of worship for Muslims,” he said, “it is the center of our lives.” (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Rabbi David Mason leads the first Sunday communal prayer service which was streamed to his congregation from the Muswell Hill Synagogue parking lot in London on Sunday, July 5, 2020. The prayer took place outdoors with social distancing to comply with government health guidelines. Mason said he took joy from knowing tech-savvy volunteers were spending hours on the phone patiently helping older community members get online for services. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

Hindu worshippers offer prayers at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as the Neasden Temple, in London on Friday, July 3, 2020. The temple of carved stone constructed according to ancient Vedic architectural texts usually welcomes thousands of visitors a day but now gets just a trickle of devotees who book appointments online first to keep the crowds down. (Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP.)

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