CHURCHES across Europe have urged Christians to be restrained and imaginative over Christmas, as rules and regulations were imposed on services and liturgies to control the coronavirus.
“We want to ensure the Christmas message is strengthened, even under the current conditions,” Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who chairs the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), said.
“With the birth of his Son, God sent a sign of hope into the world, and we want to celebrate that right now. The current situation demands creativity and a spirit of improvisation — there’s plenty of that in our congregations”.
The message accompanied EKD suggestions for Covid-secure celebrations, including telephone link-ups and ecumenical house liturgies, as new measures to contain a virus upsurge were agreed from 16 December by the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Germany’s regional premiers, allowing Christmas services to go ahead with restricted congregations, social distancing, masks, and registration.
Speaking last week, Bishop Georg Bätzing, who chairs the Bishops’ Conference, confirmed that there were “many creative ideas for celebrating the festival in a corona-fair manner”, and that most German churches were “better prepared for Christmas” than they had been for Easter.
In Italy, which is currently facing its highest death rate since March, the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, warned citizens to expect a “more sober Christmas, without Christmas Eve gatherings, hugs, and kisses”.
Italian churches can remain open, although the traditional midnight mass must be celebrated earlier to comply with a 10 p.m. nationwide curfew, and local authorities will be empowered to cordon off squares and streets to prevent crowds.
Strict measures to contain the coronavirus are expected to be relaxed over Christmas in Spain; and, in Ireland, where the pandemic has eased significantly, up to 50 will be allowed at church services.
In France, a government decree restricting church congregations to 30 was overturned at the end of November by the Conseil d’État supreme court, which declared the provisions disproportionate and a violation of religious freedom.
A new regulation specifies distance requirements, but no longer imposes a blanket limit on worshippers, while an evening-to-dawn curfew is to be relaxed on Christmas Eve.
In neighbouring Switzerland, a month-long ban on religious services in the Geneva canton was overturned on 5 December by the Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled that there was no evidence that churches were a focus for infections. Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders have called for a current cap of 50 worshippers per service to be lifted at Christmas.
In Belgium, a late November government decree banning all religious services until 15 January was also questioned by the State Council, which ordered a policy review, taking account of local conditions. A maximum of 15 people will now be allowed in churches under new rules, although Belgium’s Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, has warned that the country would “suffer the consequences” of a “carefree Christmas”.
A strict five-week lockdown in the Netherlands, enforced by the government from 15 December, will be eased for three days over Christmas: no more than 30 will be allowed at church services, and Christians will be encouraged to celebrate with prayers and Bible readings at home.
paA Scout passes on the Light of Peace, from Bethlehem, to a Sister from the diocese of Münster, Germany, in Münster Cathedral, on Sunday
The Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria, grouping 16 denominations, agreed last week to increase the number of Christmas services and stagger congregation sizes, with registration required and social distancing of 1.5 metres.
Although all services must observe “necessary brevity”, the Council’s RC chairman, Professor Rudolf Prokschi, said that he was confident that all those wishing to attend a Christmas service would “find a way to do so”, enabling “the core of the Christmas message to shine through a simple and dignified liturgy”.
In Sweden, the predominant Lutheran Church pledged in a website message to “conduct services, concerts and activities in new corona-safe ways”. Christmas 2020 would be “a relief from usual expectations” and “a quiet Christmas without travel or conflict”.
In Denmark, Christmas services are to continue with restrictions, although local bishops have urged cancellation or postponement of additional church activities.
In Eastern Europe, a maximum of 30 can attend Christmas services at smaller churches in the Czech Republic, where emergency measures have been in force since October; larger buildings are permitted to be 30-per-cent full.
In neighbouring Poland, where a spike in infections has led to a ban on travel and non-family gatherings, the government under the Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, rejected a request from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for churches to be allowed to double their intake to one person per seven square metres for the main Wigilia, or Christmas Eve, masses.
“Strict curbs in churches will mean we reduce the whole Christmas season to a question of shopping,” the conference chairman, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, warned in an open letter.
“It will set a dangerous precedent, which could have serious consequences in future, and be used by governments hostile to religion and the Church.”
In predominantly Orthodox countries, where Christmas is celebrated on 7 January, some church leaders are still resisting restrictions on using the traditional common spoon for dispensing holy communion, although these are now generally accepted by the largest Churches in Russia, Ukraine, and Romania.
In Greece, the governing Holy Synod denounced restrictions on church services in a letter last week to the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis: “As a Christian, you should know that the coming Christmas and Twelve Days are a top priority for our Church,” the synod wrote.
“Excluding the faithful from them, as happened last Easter, leaving marks on all our souls, will intensify the sorrow and anxiety of Christians, who need spiritual support, mental relief, courage, and hope through participating in divine worship.”
At the Angelus on 6 December, marking the dedication of a life-size nativity scene and Christmas tree from Slovenia in St Peter’s Square, Rome, the Pope vowed that “no pandemic and no crisis” could extinguish the “light of Christmas”.
In a Christmas message from Geneva, the interim general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Ioan Sauca, said that Covid-19 had “everywhere torn the social fabric . . . rending our connections, revealing and exacerbating inequalities, raising havoc and dissent, and threatening institutions of good governance”.
He said, however, that Christmas enabled Christians to glimpse “the fragile beginnings of our own redemption”, and could “yield hope, courage, and loving service in the cause of justice and peace”.