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Devon church becomes first to close after parishioner tests positive for coronavirus

12 March 2020


Churston Ferrers, near Brixham, in Devon

Churston Ferrers, near Brixham, in Devon

A CHURCH in Devon, St Mary the Virgin, Churston Ferrers, in Devon, was the first to be “temporarily closed” for deep cleaning, after a parishioner who had attended holy communion was later diagnosed with coronavirus.

The church closed last Friday and has not reopened. The Team Vicar, the Revd John Gay, and his congregation are in self-isolation. A sign on the church door reads: “St Mary’s Church is temporarily closed for deep cleaning on the advice of Public Health England. We look forward to welcoming you to one of our services soon.”

It also quotes Nahum 1: “The Lord is good, a strong refuge when trouble comes. He is close to those who trust in him.”

Churston Ferrers Grammar School, near by, 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 advice from Church House, which is reviewed daily, 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, as was the case with St Mary the Virgin.

On Wednesday morning, 387 people in England had tested positive for Covid-19. The total number of cases in the UK was 456. So far, more than 27,000 people have been tested. Six people have died, all of whom are reported to have 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.”

The Trussell Trust said that the foodbanks in its network had not reported running out of food donations, but that it was possible donations might fail to meet an increased demand.

The chief executive of the Trust, Emma Revie, said: “With the spread of coronavirus we all now face an unprecedented challenge and uncertain future. It is possible that food banks will face increased demand as people lose income, at the same time as food donations drop or staff and volunteers are unavailable, due to measures rightly put in place to slow the spread of infection. All of this comes when food banks are already dealing with a record level of need for emergency food.

“Wherever possible, foodbanks will continue to provide the lifeline of emergency food to people unable to afford the essentials and we encourage the public to continue donating after checking with their local food bank what items are most needed.”

She urged the Government to consider taking measures to ensure everyone had enough money for essentials, starting by ending the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment.

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has urged Christians to avoid panic buying and fearmongering and help vulnerable people 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.

His 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.”

Dr Smith also advises against “giving in to panic and hoarding food”. 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.

“There is plenty to go around, so practise the Christian discipline of sharing,” he writes. “Ask your neighbours what they need, and do your 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.”

Fifteen cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Wales, the first of which was an individual who had recently returned from Italy, which is now on lock-down. The number of confirmed cases in Scotland has risen to 27.

The Church of England, Church in Wales, and Scottish Episcopal Church have advised that all public administration of the chalice and physical sharing of the peace should cease until further notice.

Guidance from the Church in Wales states: “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 Scottish Episcopal Church 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.

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