Online service flourishes in the rural parishes of Launde deanery

Lockdown had its disadvantages and devastations, but for one deanery in the diocese, time kept out of its church buildings has helped create a wonderful online worshipping community that continues to flourish post pandemic…

It’s Sunday morning, 10.40am, and the weekly Launde Zoom service is open for community chat. As face upon face pops up on the computer screen, a cheery chorus of “hello, good morning” resonates around the room.  

Born out of necessity, online services became the new way to worship in the weeks and months following March 2020, when lockdown and Covid rules prevented people coming together in church. It was a time for many that involved learning new computer and online skills, sourcing suitable, accessible worshipping resources, and getting to grips with video communication platforms like Zoom. 

In the rural benefices of Hallaton, Whatborough, Coplow and the Gaulby Group, the decision to move church online came with similar challenges.  

Scattered out across the various hamlets and villages, faithful folk such as Linda, Mary, Madeleine, and Hilary, felt a call to be part of these services. Between them they helped set up and sustain, co-ordinate and contribute, and ultimately lay lead this new way of worshipping.

To begin with, Zoom sessions were held as separate online services across each benefice – and were, in the most part, clergy led.

It was Hallaton and Whatborough that combined their services first, lay people taking the lead. And then, almost a year ago in January 2022, they joined forces with Coplow and Gaulby to create one large, online worshipping community.

Zoom congregation numbers have fluctuated across the benefices, in their 20s and 40s, rising for festival services, and even once in the 80s for a deanery celebration during the height of the pandemic. Today, two and a half years later, more than 20 people still regularly attend this weekly Sunday Zoom service, often in addition to an in-person service going on in their parish.

The reasons for this are many and significant, says Linda, who hosts the service from her home in Hallaton. “We have a large number of people who are physically unable to get to in-person services - be that through age, illness, disability or circumstance – and that is a worthy enough reason to keep going, as they otherwise wouldn’t go to or access church,” she says. “It’s also a very special congregation. We’ve got to know each other well in the last few years and enjoy each other’s company, taking time to catch up each week before we worship.

“Some of us meet every week, others come when they can, and that’s fine. We pride ourselves on not being exclusive - we are welcoming and encourage new faces.”

This faithful fellowship has encouraged the group to support one another outside of the service, offering pastoral care, alongside organising and attending events together and services in each other’s parishes across the deanery.

John M lives in a local care home and has already been to church online in Southampton this morning. “Church is not a building,” he says. The others heartedly agreeing. “Continuity is very important, especially in our rural churches where we don’t have weekly services, so meeting regularly like this is one way of doing that in our community. And you get to see faces, instead of the backs of heads!” he smiles.

Shane nods about continuity, being something of a ‘travelling attendee’ of services outside of her church in Allexton. “It’s great to be part of a regular congregation,” she says.

It’s 6am in New Jersey, USA, where Robyn is joining us from. She has coffee, thankfully. The sun is still to rise.  

She will read the Assurance of Forgiveness during today’s service and looks forward to starting her Sundays online with friends and family in Leicestershire - where her brother lives - and Andorra, where her mother often joins in from.

In fact, many of the faces online have a part to play in today’s worship. Linda explains: “We have developed a very inclusive format, with people contributing as leaders, responders, leading the intercessions, prayers and Bible readings, as well as a rota for preparing the PowerPoint service.”

The use of PowerPoint means that those with sight or hearing issues can participate and engage. They’ve also developed a ‘house style’, using backgrounds to reflect the liturgical season, dyslexia-friendly fonts, and other literary means of signposting so people can follow the service with ease, including describing pictures for those who join by telephone.

The service opens with a prayer; Mary lights a candle at her home in Horninghold, and we sing together, ‘At the Name of Jesus’, audibly accompanied by the St Martin’s Singers.

Alongside her husband, John, Mary recognised the need to set up this style of service in her benefice, and now organises the contributors each week.

Though it came as a great change, the couple have never felt more connected, she says: “John and I both feel a greater sense of fellowship within the Zoom congregation than we experienced before. This is particularly so through the intercessions, where members of the congregation share concerns, and through the pre and post service chats.”  

And this service really is a shared experience. Members of the worshipping community – Joy, Rose, Liz and Beryl – go on to contribute, and we pause to listen to a beautifully sung version of Psalm 122.

Mary says the reflections always gives her a weekly challenge. This week’s reflection from Madeleine is an equally thought-provoking and inspiring listen. 

At her church in Tugby, Madeleine is well versed in congregation-led services, and was involved in the creation of the Hallaton benefice Zoom service during lockdown.

“I have to confess that I found the services very difficult at first,” she says. “For some, learning how to participate was quite challenging. I was unable to engage spiritually. However, this changed as people became more accustomed to the format and more people were actively participating in the service,” she explains.

“We are a praying, sharing community. Moments of glory come when people say how much they appreciate being a part of this worshipping community and how much they have enjoyed the service and when prayers are or have been answered. In the mundane of small rural village services, such appreciation, prayers and blessings are seldom articulated.”

There’s no doubt the Zoom services have demonstrated the growing strength of lay leadership in this area. Mary says: “Whilst it is always good to have an ordained presence in the services, we are most certainly not dependent on that and for three of the four weeks each month it is often entirely lay led.”

So, as this week’s service comes near to a close, Hilary leads us in the intercessions. Hilary’s a lay Reader in the Gaulby Group and set up their first Zoom service on Palm Sunday, 2020. “Before that, I thought Zoom was a bathroom cleaner!” she jokes. “Looking back it was fairly awful, especially the music but those who joined in were very tolerant and we offered it to God as the best we could do.”

Hilary says their services evolved as more people took part and sought comfort in ‘chat times’ during the isolation.

She says: “As people have grown more confident about taking part in services, several have come forward as leaders, both on Zoom and at live services. People have also grown in confidence about discussing their faith and asking for prayer support.”

In fact, in addition to this service, a small Saturday Zoom prayer group has formed, with prayer requests sent most weeks to the Sunday intercessors.

Hilary says: “Increasingly, we are seen and celebrated as a fresh expression of Church within the deanery, crossing parish boundaries whilst interacting within our own parishes when there are live services.”

There have been and continue to be many moments of glory on this journey for Hilary, but she says, “seeing others developing and articulating their faith,” and “finally realising why God had called me to be a Reader!”, are particularly significant for her.

As one of our diocesan pilot Minster Communities, many agree the everyday faith and fellowship created through this Zoom group is helping the area to work well together as they look to the future in Launde deanery.   

Madeleine says: “Sharing our skills, abilities and even our resources is vitally important for sustaining ministry and mission in our deeply rural communities.” 

It’s encouraging to know that this partnership across the parishes - between the rural hamlets and villages with beautiful churches and small congregations, that don’t regularly have a service - was happening long before the piloting of Minster Communities. With prayer and discernment, this community has found ways to reach out beyond the boundaries, to create and deepen relationships with God, and encourage faith with fellowship.

And it’s wonderful to see so many God-filled hearts among the group. It may be chilly outside, but it’s warm in the welcome of this online congregation.

The parishes of Launde Deanery hold Zoom services at 11am every Sunday. They also have a service of Lessons and Carols at 6pm on Thursday 22 December. If you are interested in sharing in this online worship, you’d be made very welcome. Visit:


First published on: 16th December 2022
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