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Welby browned off after grilling on church closures

11 July 2020

The Archbishop of Canterbury answers questions during an informal meeting of the General Synod, held via Zoom, on Saturday

The Archbishop of Canterbury answers questions during an informal meeting of the General Synod, held via Zoom, on Saturday

THE instruction to churches to close completely after the Government’s announcement about places of worship on 23 March had not been “all about us”, a testy Archbishop of Canterbury told General Synod members at the end of a string of questions about that decision.

The Archbishop, addressing members during an informal Q&A session on Saturday morning, said that he found the focus of those questions “depressing and slightly surprising”, in the absence of any reference in them to the severity of coronavirus and its impact on the community.

“The government advice was about care for the community. We issued advice, not law, in the middle of a complicated process after the Prime Minister said places of worship would be closed. We were working with a fast-moving situation,” he said.

The Church of England had needed to set an example to other faith communities in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, he said in answer to Clive Scowen (London), who wanted to know how the legal duty of clergy to say Morning and Evening Prayer in church could be regarded as non-essential. “If all of these had chosen to enter [their buildings],” the Archbishop Welby said, “the cumulative effect would have been to undermine significantly the stay-at-home advice.” The R number had been three at the time.

The decision had been made in order to save lives, but the Prolocu­tor of the Con­­vocation of Canter­bury, Canon Simon Butler, won­dered if it had done so. The Archbishop sighed visibly. “I hope so. We made the decision in the light of the best information we had at the time. Hindsight is a great gift. . . [None the less] We do stand by [that decision], and I would do nothing different in the light of the knowledge we had at the time.”

Advice, he went on, in answer to Prudence Dailey (Oxford), was not the same as law. “We listened to medical advice, guidance, and each other. We probably made mistakes, and will seek to learn from those as we conduct our review.”

But how confusing was the status of policy as advice rather than instruction, given the use of the word “must”, the Revd Charles Read (Norwich), asked. The letter issued on 24 March had reflected the tone of the Prime Minister’s statement on 23 March. The word “must” had subsequently been removed, Archbishop Welby explained.

What had been the need to respond so quickly? Why not obtain legal advice first, Debbie Buggs (London) wondered. The Archbishop replied: “Everyone was at the end of their tether, trying to work very, very rapidly. . . That was why we were not able to deal with the legal side. We were under enormous pressure.”

When the Revd Wyn Beynon (Worcester) thanked the Archbishop for “guidance that has given us a way to act on behalf of the population”, Archbishop Welby laughed. “If this were not a virtual meeting, I would leap down from the podium and embrace you — at a social distance, of course, and wearing a mask.”

After remarking on those “depressing and slightly surprising questions”, he expressed the hope that the later session on the Church’s response to Covid-19 would not be “all about us”.

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