THE Archbishops of Canterbury and York were giving “guidance, not instruction”, when they wrote to clergy last month to say that they should not enter their churches, Archbishop Welby has said.
The Archbishops wrote to clergy on 24 March, the day after the Prime Minister included places of worship among the buildings that must be shut to contain the spread of Covid-19 (News, 27 March). The Archbishops wrote: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well, and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own.”
In an interview on BBC1 on The Andrew Marr Show on Easter Day, from the kitchen in the Archbishop’s flat in Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop was asked about the legality of the Archbishops’ telling clergy not to enter their churches.
Mr Marr put to the Archbishop the words of the Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, in London, the Revd Marcus Walker: “We’re expected to say morning and evening prayer in our churches every Sunday and to celebrate communion — that’s the law. Do the bishops have a right to order us not to do our legal duty? Every canon lawyer I have spoken to says ‘No’.”
Archbishop Welby responded: “The answer to that is we have given guidance, not instruction. Frankly, Andrew, in the Church of England the one way to get anyone to do the opposite of what you want is to give them an order. . . Someone said years ago ‘It’s like herding cats.’
“So, no, we haven’t given an instruction; so we haven’t broken canon law. We have said: ‘This is how you care for your flock and share in the privations of the flocks and share in the suffering of the nation and set an example, and care for others and look after them. Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives. It’s not complicated.”
The Archbishop was also asked in the interview whether closing churches for public worship had been a step too far. He emphasised that the decision had been taken by all the bishops “with much pain and much thought and much prayer, and after much discussion; so it’s not just a single person making up their mind on the spur of the moment.”
He continued: “There are some people who are very unhappy — I’m unhappy with it. I would love to be in Canterbury Cathedral, with the great congregation as we usually have on Easter Sunday. It would be much better.
“But the reality is we’re here to set an example, to share in the deprivation of the things we like doing, to care for others. It’s not about us; it’s about being the Church for England, not just the Church of England. . .
“The church buildings are closed, and I love the church buildings, but the Church is emphatically not closed — it’s probably busier than it’s ever been.”
Asked why public worship could not take place if congregants observed social distancing — as people have done in shops and supermarkets, for example — Archbishop Welby responded: “In practical terms, it’s very straightforward: that people when they go into a church leave traces on the pews, on the places they’ve been. If someone goes to the same place, within a matter of days, and the virus has been left there, they can pick it up. That’s the practical answer, and it’s a very straightforward one.”
Asked whether the streaming of services online would become permanent, he said: “Well, I suspect we’ll be a lot more effective at doing things online, and I suspect we’ll use it a great deal more. I’m not good at forecasting; so I don’t know what the future is going to look like, but I think we’re learning a huge number of lessons, and we’re learning that the Church is, at its heart, the people. We’re relearning that, which was the lesson of the first three centuries. . . It’s [the Church is] not a building. The buildings are a gift, a treasure, but they are not the Church.”
The Archbishop also acknowledged that it was “really painful” for the bereaved not to be able to hold funerals for loved ones in church buildings. C of E guidelines state that funeral services should take place only in crematoria chapels, and by the graveside, and with “a very small congregation” (News, 3 April).
“My advice is this: that first of all talk to each other over the phone, in every way you can,” he said. “Do the things you do, bring the memories back together. Plan a thanksgiving and memorial service. . .
“But I say to crematoria and to local authorities particularly, don’t just dispose of bodies, like we did in the foot-and mouth-episode with cattle. Human beings must be said goodbye to with dignity, even when it has to be swift and with very few people there.”
Asked whether the pandemic would prompt “a major rethinking of who we most value in society”, such as NHS workers and other key workers, the Archbishop said: “Yes; if we don’t do that, we are not a just society. If this isn’t a moment that holds up a mirror to us and says ‘The CEO doing imaginative, great work, creating jobs, the good ones who care for those they work with, they depend absolutely on the key workers who stack the shelves.
“We depend on each other at the most fundamental level. And therefore we have to relook at how we value each other. That includes how we value each other in financial terms; who bears the burdens of our society; and all the rest of it. If we don’t relook at that, there is no justice in our society.”
There was a “huge danger”, the Archbishop said, of geographical and socio-economic inequalities’ being exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We have the pandemic, but we also have an economic wave coming that is going to be very difficult. And we have a choice there. . . Do we take hold of our destiny and make sure that these differences are mitigated, abolished where possible, or do we just let things happen, let the market rule? In which case, there will be enormous suffering.”
Archbishop Welby said, however, that he was “immensely hopeful. I think, as a nation, we can seize this opportunity, and we will seize it; it just requires that decision to do so. And I think, post-Brexit . . . there is hope, and there is this possibility that wasn’t there in the past.
“Well, let’s honour those who have suffered, who have served us, who have cared for us, and, above all, those who died, by taking that opportunity. We will then be a better and a happier and a more wonderful country, and a better world.”