THERE was a guarded response this week to the news that, under government guidelines for Step Three of the phased return to normal life, churches could open for worship as early as 4 July.
The document that followed the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday linked places of worship with pubs, hairdressers, hospitality providers, and leisure facilities as free to open from that date, assuming that infection rates have not risen again and provided that they can meet the Covid-19 secure guidelines.
The document concedes: “Some venues which are, by design, crowded . . . may still not be able to reopen safely at this point.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, at the Downing Street briefing, went further. “I’ve been speaking to faith leaders, and will convene later this week a task force to establish when and how places of worship can open safely, for some of the practices where social distancing can take place, such as private prayer, potentially private prayer being able to be carried out earlier than July 4th.”
No change has been announced to the current instructions for funerals, which allow a few family members and friends to attend services in crematoria or burials. There was, though, a hint that weddings might be allowed in three weeks’ time. A web page of FAQs, last updated on Monday, states: “We understand the frustration couples planning a wedding must be feeling, so we have set out our intention to enable small wedding ceremonies from 1 June. As with all coronavirus restrictions on places of worship, venues and social distancing, we will look to ease them as soon as it is safe to do so. We will work closely with faith leaders and local government over the coming weeks to go through the practicalities.”
Far from rushing to unveil plans for opening up their premises, individual churches showed a marked reluctance this week to embark on any kind of detailed planning. Most acknowledge themselves to be too busy and have simply “parked” the issue of return for the time being.
They are looking, too, at the experience of German churches, which reopened for public worship on Sunday, with strict social distancing, compulsory wearing of face masks, shortened service times, and no singing. Cologne Cathedral has set a maximum attendance figure of 122 for public worship.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who is leading the C of E’s response to the crisis, said on Monday: “We are examining what steps we will need to take to do so safely and are actively planning ahead in preparation. We strongly support the Government’s approach of continuing to suppress the transmission of the virus and accordingly, we recognise that at this time public worship cannot return in the interests of public health and safety.”
paA man wearing a face mask receives communion in front of a Plexiglass screen in St Martin’s Basilica, Baden-Württemberg, in Germany, on Sunday
The document repeats advice on preventing the spread of the virus, including maintaining two-metre distancing, washing hands frequently, washing clothes regularly, and keeping indoor areas well ventilated. It also raises the prospect that face-covering might need to become standard for churchgoing, “to protect against inadvertent transmission of the disease to others if you have it asymptomatically”.
No further reflections have come centrally since Bishop Mullally’s response to the document. It was clear from talking to individual clergy this week that the scale of what would have to be done in some instances to resume public worship soon would be daunting.
Small churches could accommodate just a handful of worshippers, and fixed pews in many give no scope for reconfiguring the space. Narrow aisles invite bottlenecks, and many rural churches still have no lavatories or hand-washing facilities Setting up for services and cleaning after them would need strict regimes.
As for who would attend, one cleric observed this week of the responsibilities that would have to be faced: “The nation has been trying to keep the elderly and those with underlying health conditions free from the virus. They’re also, in many cases, the ones who miss the worship and the sacraments most, and they’d likely be the ones who very much wanted to be there on that first Sunday.”
On Thursday, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, pushed for better access to church buildings.
”We’d like a bit more sensitivity from the Government,” he told an interviewer on the Today programme on Radio 4, “and we’d like to remind them that the Catholic Church has certainly put forward already detailed protocols agreed with Public Health England about how we can start the process, step by step, of making churches available for people.
“We want to do this for a couple of reasons: one is because they offer a private, quiet space for individual prayer, and that helps people’s inner stability; and also because the faiths are a terrific motivator for aspects of the service that are given in society today. . .
“In these last weeks we’ve been creative, we’ve been faithful: mass has been celebrated every single day in Catholic churches, and people have joined in online on streaming. But there’s something, a big, big feeling in religious communities, of people wanting to get back to a fuller practice of their faith as long as we can do it safely.”
paYoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, the biggest Protestant church in South Korea, holds a service on Sunday
The Cardinal spoke first about private prayer. “I would like to see churches available for people to go and kneel and say their prayers privately, individually.” He acknowledged that it “would mean a routine of supervision, a routine of social distancing, a routine of cleansing. All of that we believe we can do.
“But I think there’s another thing it needs: it needs an understanding that what goes on in places of worship is quite different from one to another. A personal, individual prayer in a Catholic church is not something that is much done in Pentecostal churches, which tend to concentrate on big gatherings; it’s not what’s done in mosques, where people pray side by side. So we need a bit of differentiated thinking.”
Cardinal Nichols described how “hundreds and thousands” of people had joined in communion online. (Roman Catholic priests have not ceased celebrating in their churches.) “But every single one of them wants to be able to receive holy communion. It’s a fast for us, it’s a painful fast.”
That was true of other faiths, he said. “I was talking to four imams yesterday, and they would say the same: think of the patterns of Ramadan, and what sacrifice the Muslim community is making by never meeting outside their families during Ramadan and at the end of the feast.
“So, there’s a great deal of deep spiritual sacrifice being made, and OK, we’re willing, but we want to know that we’re appreciated and that sensitivities are recognised, and that we have these opportunities to open up safely, step by step.”