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Church leaders concede on public worship

12 November 2020

Despite continuing discussion, churches are unlikely to reopen

Adam Isfendiyar

Doorstepped: an image from a new online exhibition, “Indoors”, by the photo­grapher Adam Isfen­diyar and a group of Oxford researchers. Launched on Thursday, it ex­­plores how older Lon­doners have adapted to life under lockdown ​

Doorstepped: an image from a new online exhibition, “Indoors”, by the photo­grapher Adam Isfen­diyar and a group of Oxford researchers. Launched on Th...

CHURCH leaders continue to press the Government on the importance of worship and prayer on the spiritual and mental health of the nation, but have conceded that places of worship are unlikely to reopen before the second lockdown ends on 2 December.

The Church Times understands that discussions are ongoing between the C of E’s Recovery Group and the Government’s Places of Worship Taskforce, which met again on Wednesday. No fresh information emerged afterwards.

A spokesperson for Church House explained on Tuesday: “We are stating the importance of public worship for spiritual and mental health, and as the heart of the Church’s mission and ministry. We are also stating the measures introduced since March to make church buildings as safe as they possibly can be.

“We expect public worship to resume once lockdown is over. We are focusing on the positive steps we can encourage, including the month of prayer in November [News, 6 November], and forward to ensuring churches are ready for Christmas in different circumstances.”

The Recovery Group issued new guidance on the second lockdown last Friday. It calls again for people to “respond to the current situation with calm, courage, and compassion”, and offers clarification on specific issues, including the exemptions and limits on the use of church buildings during lockdown.

It states: “Collective or congregational prayer and regular scheduled services are not permitted. This includes a Minister of religion or lay person/volunteer leading devotions or prayer of any sort. If possible, arrangements should be made to broadcast services, enabling people to watch and worship at home.”

On live streaming, it notes that only “those people essential for the content of the service and for technical support” can attend, including musicians or singers if this is usual and essential. “No congregation may be present.” Support groups of up to 15 are permitted, including those for new parents and vulnerable young people. Amateur choir practice or group bell-ringing is not permitted.

The main FAQs on the C of E website have also been edited to include only those relevant to the current lockdown.

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, told Radio 5 Live on Tuesday that, while he still believed that places of worship should have been exempted by the Government, the time for fighting had passed. “Of course, we have to do all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe. The Church has taken a lead in doing that, but this second lockdown isn’t the same as the first one. . .

“It is possible for us to gather for worship in small, limited, and controlled and safe ways. We also know that worship is not a leisure activity; worship is about our identity, and we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in other faith communities to say that.”

Asked how churches were different from gyms and other leisure facilities, which had their own mental-health benefits, he said: “We are not preparing to get into a fight with the Government over this, I don’t think that would help anybody; nevertheless, we did feel that it was right to put down a marker, and that we don’t think churches are the same [as gyms]. . .

“We have moved on from this; we have called a month of prayer, we are trying to respond positively and not get into an argument, which is the last thing we need.”

Archbishop Cottrell raised similar issues in an article in The Sunday Telegraph on Remembrance Sunday. He wrote: “Although public worship in a church, mosque, or synagogue isn’t essential in the same way as healthcare or food, neither should churches be treated like bingo halls or cinemas. Worship is essential in other ways. It shapes identity and purpose.”

This was particularly poignant, he said, on occasions such as Remembrance and the Armistice, on Wednesday. “The word remembrance is at the heart of our worshipping life. . . The act of remembrance which is the Eucharist is our greatest treasure. Our Government and nation need to know that it is not a small thing for this to be denied us.”

Although the Government allowed outside gatherings of public worship in England to take place on Armistice Day, on Wednesday, it is unlikely that public worship will resume before 2 December, which the Archbishop of Canterbury, other religious leaders, and politicians had initially argued for (News, 6 November).

Archbishop Welby had initially told the ITV programme Good Morning Britain, last Friday, that the ban would “probably change before too long”. He had also said that the Government had been “very good, they’re listening very carefully” since his letter to the Prime Minister, who, he said, he often prayed for.

Before the end of lockdown, the General Synod will debate a paper, Responses to Covid-19, co-written by Archbishop Welby and Archbishop Cottrell, which “examines the seriousness of the position in early November” and the dilemmas facing the Government. It also outlines ways in which the pandemic, and measures taken to curb it, are having an impact on the most vulnerable in society.

Whether the second lockdown could have been avoided is now “academic”, it says. Now that it is here, however, the goal must be to maximise the reduction of the R-number and avoid a relapse in December. “It is crucial that Test and Trace and/or personal testing are running effectively by the end of the lockdown, or the cycle will be repeated.”

The document refers to a “lack of hope”, fatigue, and desperation in the nation, the “tragic consequences” of the measures taken by the Government, and the part played by faith communities in alleviating these negative impacts.

“Or for worse”. Marriages are twice as likely to have improved as deteriorated during the pandemic, a news study from the Marriage Foundation suggests. The charity analysed the responses of 2559 parents who completed the most recent UK Household Longitudinal Coronavirus survey, which is conducted monthly.

One in five (20 per cent) of married couples reported that their relationship had strengthened since the start of lockdown, compared with nine per cent who said that it had worsened. The proportion of parents who were considering divorce “more often than not” fell by two-thirds from “normal” pre-Covid levels in 2017-19.

The Marriage Foundation’s Research Director, Harry Benson, who co-authored the study, said: “Our study debunks claims that lockdown is leading to a divorce boom. The data strongly suggest the opposite: spending more time with your husband or wife has been beneficial for large numbers of the UK’s 12.8 million married couples.”

Read more on the story in our letters to the editor

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