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Coronavirus: hold your nerve, Bishop advises

09 March 2020

A church in Devon was temporarily closed on Friday for deep cleaning


People queue outside a Boots pharmacy store in west London where stocks of hand sanitiser are limited to two per person

People queue outside a Boots pharmacy store in west London where stocks of hand sanitiser are limited to two per person

CHRISTIANS should avoid panic buying and fearmongering because of the spread of the coronavirus in the UK, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said. They should help vulnerable neighbours instead.

The Bishop posted four “golden rules” to sit alongside official public health advice, which he said Christians should follow. These include avoiding demonising people who were unwell.

Dr Smith’s first rule states: “So much of the public rhetoric is sowing fear about the danger of other people. So, taking all the official precautions, offer help and reassurance to others — and don’t demonise anyone or any group.”

On Monday, 319 cases of the coronavirus Covid-19 had been confirmed in the UK. Three people have died, all of whom had significant underlying health conditions. The Government said that its action plan had not been escalated past the “contain” stage — the first of four phases. There was currently no reason to close schools or cancel sporting events, it said, which would be considered in the next phase: to “delay” the spread of the virus.

The charity Feeding Britain, whose president is the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been preparing to support families who rely on free school meals in the event of UK-wide school closures. The national director, Andrew Forsey, said this week: “For so many families now, schools are the first line of defence against hunger.

“In many cases it is breakfast as well as lunch, so if the schools close it is two meals we have to find. There is early-stage planning going on around ensuring supplies of food and the extent of voluntary support that could be drawn upon if some schools do need to close.”

Supermarkets have introduced sales limits per customer of items deemed essential, such as hand soap and sanitisers, dried pasta, UHT milk, and some tinned vegetables, which are being bought in bulk by customers. 

Dr Smith advises against “giving in to panic and hoarding food. There is plenty to go around, so practise the Christian discipline of sharing,” he writes. “Ask your neighbours what they need, and do you best to help them get it. If you are self-isolating you will, of course, need some supplies.”

Churches could, he suggested, undertake an audit and talk over the phone to elderly people, the housebound, and people with chronic health conditions who were vulnerable and may be anxious.

“There is nothing like a friendly voice to offer solace when someone is worried. . . If you visit, follow all the official precautions or do not go.”

Finally, as well as praying, he said: “Live today to the full. None of us ever know what the future holds. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.25 – 34), Jesus challenged his followers to live each day fully and not be afraid. Every time we are tempted to give in to fear we need to make a conscious choice to respond in trust and openness.”

The Bishop of Hertford, Dr Michael Beasley, who was an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, agreed that Christians had a duty to protect the vulnerable. He told the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4: “It is part of the paradox of coronavirus — it is an infection that could push us apart and yet, as a community, we need to pull together to care for one another and take the right steps to bring it under control.”

Lessons could be learned from the Ebola virus, he said, though that disease was much more serious. It had been “inspiring” to see churches in affected areas in Africa take steps to control the spread of the disease. “Everybody is really keen to get behind this and play their part.”

Six cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Wales, the first of whom had recently returned from southern Italy, the second from northern Italy, where up to 16 million people now face travel restrictions.

The Church in Wales has advised that all public administration of the chalice and sharing of the peace should cease until further notice. Guidance published last week stated: “The chalice must continue to be prepared and consecrated in the usual way, but the celebrant alone should receive from the chalice. . . Non-physical means of exchanging the peace are encouraged — such as saying ‘peace be with you’, preferably whilst making eye contact.”

The Church of England, however, has left this decision to individual priests. The latest guidance from Church House states that, should coronavirus infections increase in the parish, priests are free to consider suspending the administration of the chalice and offer communion in one kind only.

Where this applies, handshaking or other direct physical contact during the peace, or as part of a blessing or laying on of hands, should also be suspended. “Where the priest has not suspended the administration of the chalice, communicants may nevertheless decide to receive in one kind only at their own discretion.”

The advice was updated last Friday and is reviewed daily. Though the threat posed by Covid-19 remains “moderate”, and the risk to individuals is low, churches should continue to encourage and facilitate good hygiene practices, it says.

The guidance now includes FAQs including what to do should someone in the congregation be infected. The person infected must isolate themselves, and the church may need to be closed and services suspended while the building is deep cleaned.

This was the case for St Mary the Virgin, Churston Ferrers, in Devon, which was temporarily closed on Friday for deep cleaning, after a parishioner who had attended communion that week was later diagnosed with coronavirus.

Churston Ferrers Grammar School, nearby, was also closed on the advice of Public Health England after a student was diagnosed with the virus. Pupils are being taught online this week.

The Team Vicar of Buckfastleigh, in Devon, the Revd Professor Gina Radford, who is the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told BBC Radio 4 on Saturday that churches should be practising “business as usual” as much as possible.

“Churches have a very important role to play in communities, both spiritual as well as pastoral and practical support, and we want to keep that presence and service going. In terms of what happens within services, we have been giving advice about following good hygiene practices. . .

“Legally, the decision [to withdraw the common cup] sits with the priest because they understand their local circumstance and local need, so [with vulnerable congregations] that is quite an understandable position, which is why we have issued this advice.”

The Church was not considering widespread closures or suspension of services, she said. “We are reminding everyone about appropriate hygiene practices, and asking churches to have appropriate sanitisers; but we do have to remember that churches are places of meeting and welcome and comfort. At the moment we are wanting people to have a balanced approach, and to go about as normally as they can for as long as possible.”

The number of confirmed cases in Scotland has risen to 18. The Scottish Episcopal Church had been following the C of E’s guidance, but, since the recent update, the College of Bishops has issued its own advice based on “independent medical advice”.

Like Wales, it has suspended administration of the chalice, and asks congregations to “cease physical contact on arrival at church and departure until further notice, as well as during the peace, which should be limited to a nod or a smile and a verbal ‘and also with you’ while members remain in their pew or chair.”

Altar linen should be refreshed for each celebration, it states, and communicants should “remain a respectful distance” from the next person on their way to the communion rail, and at the rail.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has postponed its executive and central committee meetings, due to have been held later this month. It has also limited travel, and closed the visitors programme until April in an effort to limit infection.

The outgoing general secretary of the WCC, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, who will leave on 1 April, wrote in a letter to staff: “We are in a situation where we together have to handle the risk related to Covid-19. We have to protect those in our constituency who live in contexts with health systems that would struggle to handle such an outbreak. We also have to avoid that our work is blocked by absences and quarantine measures, here or elsewhere.”

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