THE Archbishop of Canterbury has scaled down his family Christmas plans, he said this week, as a new survey suggests that at least one third of churchgoers have no plans to attend services.
Archbishop Welby told ITV News on Thursday night that he did not envy the politicians who were making the rules about Covid restrictions this Christmas. “You can make a moral case both ways,” he said. “You can make a moral case about mental health and isolation, about freedom, about trusting people.”
At the same time, he said, “There is certainly a moral case to say to everybody: ‘Be immensely careful in what you do.’ It is moral vanity to make rules you don’t think will be obeyed.”
His mother, who is in her 90s, will no longer be coming for Christmas, he said. “That will be very painful indeed. And most of our family are not coming. They are one of the great sources of strength and resilience. And there will be people across the country for whom it will be agony not to have people. . .
“It will be a very small Christmas this year, very restrained, immensely careful, and I would encourage people to do that.”
Asked about his own mental health, he said: “I have found the last few weeks particularly trying. We are at the stage of the pandemic where we feel like it is going to go on forever.
“It is not. This will come to an end, we don’t know when, but it will. And then, please God, let us have the mother and father of all parties, and weep for those we have lost, and rejoice in those who have recovered, and commit ourselves to a better country in the future.”
In a survey of 6470 people conducted by YouGov on behalf of Ecclesiastical Insurance between 4 and 8 December, 1331 people identified themselves a churchgoers.
When asked how likely they would be to attend a service this year, however, 45 per cent said they were “not at all likely” to attend midnight mass, while the same number said that they were not at all likely to go to a nativity service; 33 per cent said that they were not at all likely to attend a carol service.
Of this sample, nearly one quarter of whom were Anglicans, most cited fear of catching the coronavirus as their chief reason for avoiding church (38 per cent), followed by restrictions in their area (26 per cent), and the lack of any services to attend (22 per cent).
“It is clear from the findings of these surveys that the shadow of Covid-19 is still with us this festive period, and it can’t be ignored as a hurdle for churches to consider,” the church operations director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Michael Angell, has said.
The Government has eased social-distancing restrictions over the Christmas period. Between 23 and 27 December, up to three households in England and Northern Ireland will be allowed to form a “Christmas bubble” where they can meet up and stay the night in each other’s homes, gather in places of worship, or in an outdoor public space or garden.
Restrictions were changed in Wales on Wednesday, allowing for only two households to mix for Christmas, as well as one extra single person who lives alone. Scotland allows for three households only to mix on one day.
There are no travel restrictions during this period. Those who are self-isolating or showing Covid-19 symptoms cannot join a bubble. Anyone else can meet another bubble outdoors, but only if this is in line with the rules of the tier where they are based.
The editor of the Health Service Journal, Alastair McLellan, and the editor of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee, both warned on Tuesday that relaxing the rules around social distancing at Christmas and allowing families to meet up could lead to higher rates of casualties.
On the same day, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, held meetings with representatives from all of the nations in the UK to talk through a possible re-think around relaxing the restrictions.
Unlike in Wales, the Prime Minister made no change to the rules in England, but urged people to limit the length and size of prospective Christmas gatherings as much as possible. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, further urged people on Thursday to cancel Christmas plans if they involved travelling to see family and friends.
Mr Johnson said on Twitter on Friday that anyone planning to meet in a “bubble” over Christmas must “minimise contact with people from outside your household” (News, 27 November).
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, criticised the guidelines on Twitter on Wednesday: “Thanks Boris for giving every single person in the country the most nightmarish conundrum! ‘You can see your family and friends at Christmas but you’d maybe better not.’ Is clarity too much to ask for from Government?”
The House of Bishops held an online meeting on Monday and Tuesday, at which the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, highlighted the efforts of churches to support their communities and ensure that churches services were conducted in a safe and compliant manner.
Newly issued guidance by the Church of England emphasises the parameters for church services, which remain permitted in all three tiers. The rules governing services in tiers 2 and 3 state: “Permitted as an organised gathering provided any person attending is: alone or part of group, all from the same household or from two linked households, or part of group all from the same linked Christmas households (23-27 December only), and must not join any other group or mingle with any person from another group. NB non-household groups of six are not permitted.”
There is also a reminder that people living in a tier 3 area are advised not to travel to an area in another tier.
Speaking on Thursday, Bishop Mullally said: “I would strongly echo the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer in saying the priority continues to be people’s safety. I encourage everyone to be cautious over the festive period, to think hard about who they see, and to do everything they can to protect their loved ones.
“It is the courage and commitment of our key workers above all else that created the chance to see our families this month. We should now all work together over Christmas to ensure that their efforts were not in vain.
“Our churches and parishes have taken considerable steps to create safe environments, and I am extremely grateful for all they have done throughout the year.
“Coming together as worshipping communities both in person and online will bring comfort and joy to millions over the Christmas period. It is vital that we keep our focus on caring for one another. It will be important that all of us attending church services meet in a spirit of patience and goodwill, to ensure the safest environment possible.”
Archbishop Welby, writing in The Spectator for 19 December, said that Christmas was still a time for hope, despite the hardships of the year brought about by the pandemic.
He writes: “There are many things to be unhappy about — and being a Christian does not mean pretending everything is fine when it is not. But I have seen the way that churches and other faith groups, local communities, charities, and individuals have been offering help to those in need up and down the country.
“We have seen that our joy is deeply bound up in our willingness to enter into the suffering of others and walk with them through it: to be those who bring comfort to others through our presence. And true presence requires sacrifice — time, attention, care and something that costs us.”