CHURCHES in England will be able to open their doors again on Saturday for private prayer and funeral services — but many could struggle to find people willing to open them and take on the responsibility for the new cleaning regimes.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government announced on Sunday that the decision had been made after meetings of the places-of-worship task force, which is chaired by the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick. The Government would continue to work with the task force, it said, “towards the full reopening of places of worship as soon as the scientific advice allows”.
The Government initially announced that places of worship would be permitted to open for private prayer from 15 June. Guidance updated on Friday, however, said that the date was 13 June.
Mr Jenrick said on Sunday: “This move recognises the spiritual and mental-health benefits for people being able to pray in their place of worship, and that for some people this cannot be replicated by praying at home.”
The Ministry defined individual prayer in a place of worship “as a person or household entering the venue to pray on their own and not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act. They should be socially distanced from other individuals or households.” Public worship, streamed or otherwise, is not permitted while visitors are in the building.
And on Tuesday, the House of Bishops agreed that funerals could take place again inside churches from 15 June. The decision was prompted by the continued reduction in death rates linked to Covid-19 and the pastoral needs of the bereaved.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Recovery Group, said that she was “only too aware that those who have lost loved ones have suffered most of all” during the pandemic.
Churches will not be compelled to open for either private prayer or funerals: the incumbent and PCC are to decide whether it is feasible. And, in both cases, detailed guidance has been issued concerning how to keep the church building clean and to maintain physical distancing, among other things.
A risk-assessment template issued by the C of E’s recovery group regarding the opening of churches for private prayer, for example, suggests numerous measures to prevent transmission of the conronavirus. These include one point of entry to the building, clearly identified; doors and windows opened to improve ventilation; hand sanitisers placed around the building; lavatory facilities given adequate supplies of soap and paper towels; and seating areas marked out to maintain physical distancing. The building should also be cleaned before and after general use.
It is not clear, however, whether some of the volunteers on whom parish churches rely — “Generation A” laywomen, born in the 1920s and ’30s and now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties (Features, 23 June 2017) — will be available, given they are classified as in the “at risk” category.
Dr Abby Day, Professor of Race, Faith, and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths University of London, and the author of The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The last active Anglican generation (Oxford University Press, 2017) said this week that, before the pandemic, churches were “kept open during the week because of these people. . . Who is going to be keeping the doors open the day churches open for private prayer? In the past, on church-opening days, who is there? It’s the elderly ladies keeping them open.”
Many of the Generation A women would be inclined to help, as they had done in the past, Dr Day said; but they — and their families — would also harbour concerns about the health risks of doing so.
“A lot will feel a sense of independence and the need to get back into daily and weekly regimes, tempered by understandable responsibility for the wider community and their own health,” she said.
Many would be under pressure from their children — many of whom do not attend church regularly — to put their health before their voluntary commitments, Dr Day suggested.
The announcement that places of worship would be allowed to open for private prayer was welcomed by church leaders.
Bishop Mullally said that it “recognises that the buildings themselves are important sacred spaces for people. . . We look forward to when it is safe for our church buildings once again to become meeting places for worship, prayer, and all they do to serve and bless their communities.”
The RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, described it as “a first, measured step in restoring the more normal practice of our faith. . . Not every Catholic church will be open on 15 June. Local decisions and provision have to lead this process. But it is a great blessing, for individuals and for the benefit of all in society, that church doors will again be open to all who long to pray there for the peace and grace we need today.”
Forward in Faith was grateful that the Government had recognised “the benefits of praying in church; benefits which are not always available at home. . . We are mindful that not all churches will be able to open immediately — for a variety of reasons — and ask that patience and understanding are paramount in those cases.”
The Church in Wales said on Thursday that its churches are to remain closed until further notice, for both public worship and private prayer. A statement said that “discussions are taking place with Welsh Government over the possible re-opening of churches, led by the Archbishop with the Faith Communities Forum”.
The Church in Wales’s Bishops said in a statement: “A protocol for re-opening is being developed by Welsh Government in the context of the specific legislative context in Wales. This protocol will inform guidance from the Church in Wales on how churches can be re-opened safely. This guidance will be a practical tool to help you plan your future opening and mitigate risks of transmission of Covid-19. The guidance will centre on procedures for social distancing, hygiene, and premises cleaning.
“When the law permits, we envisage a gradual opening of churches based on a clear demonstration of compliance with the protocol and guidance — our primary concern is for the health of those that will use our churches again. Welsh Government has confirmed that there will be no change to the current rules in Wales before the First Minister’s next announcement on the 18th June.”
On Friday, the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church published updated guidance on how to prepare for the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions as Scotland approaches Phase 2 of the Scottish Government’s Route Map through and out of the Crisis.
Phase 2, the guidance states, “envisages the possibility of places of worship being open for individual (private) prayer, funerals and, in exceptional circumstances and in consultation with the Bishop, of marriages to take place with minimal numbers of attendees”.
It continues: “Whilst many will undoubtedly be keen to re-open churches and endeavour to resume some form of public worship, any such resumption is not expected to be possible until Phase 3 and 4. In Phase 3 in particular, this is unlikely to be what was considered ‘normal’ prior to the pandemic. In the meantime, a wide variety of online worship offerings continue to be available from the province and many of our individual churches and elsewhere, some of which can also be accessed by telephone.
“Activities which are not permitted in Phase 2 include communal worship, services other than funerals, study groups, children’s or youth meetings, meetings for choir practice or bell ringing, access for tourism purposes or the use of halls for lifestyle or leisure/recreational activities such as craft or exercise groups. Additional guidance will be produced in due course for use in relation to Phases 3 and 4 respectively.”
The Irish government said last week that it “anticipated” that churches in the country would reopen for public worship on 29 June.
On Monday, the Church of Ireland issued protocols for churches in Ireland and Northern Ireland to follow when they reopen for public worship. They include guidance on entering and leaving church buildings; how priests and congregants should conduct themselves during a service; and the cleaning of buildings.
The RC Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Eamon Martin, has called on “the younger members of our parishes to step forward” to assist with tasks such as “cleaning, stewarding, reading, ministering the Eucharist and other roles and responsibilities which some of our older members may be unable to fulfil at this time”.