HAND sanitisers, one-way traffic systems, and priests in PPE greeted people who were allowed inside their churches for the first time in three months this week.
Permission to reopen for private prayer was brought forward at short notice by the Government from Monday to last Saturday, in the wake of protests that churches were still off-limits while non-essential shopping was permitted. The Dean of Truro, the Very Revd Roger Bush, described the process as “typical of the slapdash way the easing of lockdown for faith groups is being handled”.
Truro Cathedral was one of many churches that waited until Monday to open. “It just wasn’t feasible for us to bring the reopening 48 hours forward,” the Dean said. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m, 73 people came in. “Some were regulars, many of whom were tearily relieved at the reopening,” he said, “but many were casual visitors. All the clergy residentiaries were on hand, and we had several moving conversations with people about loss and separation.”
Southwell Minster delayed opening until Tuesday. “We couldn’t cope with the very sudden change to 13 June,” the Dean, the Very Revd Nicola Sullivan, said. The cathedral is now open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Three children were among the 45 people who came on Tuesday.
“There was huge appreciation of having access once again to a much loved building,” Dean Sullivan said. “Many lit candles and spent time in silence. All were respectful of the ‘rules’. There were several conversations about the difficulties of these last 12 weeks: grief, loneliness, worried about sick friends and family, and the state of the world. Many visitors were visibly tearful as they encountered the minster again.
“I’m thinking of giving up the day job of Zoom-MS [Microsoft] Teams and worries about cathedral finance, to just be with people coming into the minster again. My two-hour shift on Tuesday was one of the highlights of the last three months.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, were the first through the great west door of Westminster Abbey since March, on Monday, when they prayed — the regulation distance apart — together. Archbishop Welby and Cardinal Nichols had earlier joined in prayer at Westminster Cathedral. The Cardinal later posted a message on Twitter saying that it was “a great joy” to see churches open once again.
The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, who had lobbied MPs to support reopening, said that he was “delighted” by the change. “It is important to stress that there is no pressure, no rush to do this. Parishes have been encouraged to proceed as and when they are able, and with everything in place to make sure that all advice is carefully followed.”
St Luke’s, Stone Cross, and North Langney, in Pevensey, East Sussex, opened on Tuesday with advice on using sanitisers, observing the two-metre rule, and on visitors’ not entering if they have symptoms. At St Saviour’s, Eastbourne, a member of the clergy is available for the first hour of the daily afternoon sessions.
In rural Herefordshire, one group of six parishes has taken a pragmatic view of the unlocking. “We are not particularly going down the line of rigorous cleaning, simply because we don’t have that many visitors,” the Rector of the Wormelow Hundred Benefice, and Rural Dean of Ross and Archenfield, the Revd Mark Johnson, said.
“We have hand sanitisers and notices telling people to keep a social distance, but a lot of churches are off the beaten track. We can’t supervise them, as we don’t have the people. If we did, they could be sat there all day and no one comes in. It’s a case of balancing the risks. We are relying on people’s common sense to read the laminated notice on the front door telling them to use the sanitiser, don’t touch things, and, if you feel unwell, here’s a number to ring.”
The diocese of Liverpool said that it, too, had taken a pragmatic view about reopening. “We are supporting those who wish to open, and equally supportive of those who feel that this is not the right thing,” a spokesman said. “With the R-rate still quite high in the north-west, some churches are holding off from reopening. We are also very conscious of some clergy who are in the shielding and vulnerable categories, and who cannot be a physical presence in church.”
At Liverpool Cathedral, several days were spent testing online time-slot bookings to manage numbers and social distancing before opening. The Dean, the Very Revd Dr Sue Jones, said: “Our preparations have been meticulous. We are taking sensible steps so we keep visitors, volunteers, and staff safe. As a large cathedral and visitor attraction, we have had to show a lead in doing the right thing. This has been all the more challenging with late and confusing guidance coming from the Government.”
At Peterborough Cathedral, it had been the plan to open on 4 July, but the Chapter are now looking to do so sooner. “We were not going to be rushed into opening prematurely,” the Dean, the Very Revd Chris Dalliston, said. “We have now reviewed our plans, and may be able to offer limited access for private prayer at an earlier date. We put the safety of our staff, volunteers, and visitors at the top of our list of priorities.”
Salisbury diocese’s Rural Hope team has devised a new way to pray, using local prayer spaces. It is asking landowners, churches, and schools to put up specially designed signs at outdoor locations for prayer. The Bishop of Sherborne, the Rt Revd Karen Gorham, said: “Many people have been using our churchyards and open spaces to say their own prayers during the pandemic. It will not be easy for all our churches to open, and, often, people need reminders that they are welcome, and that they can pray. This is a simple idea whereby local communities can set aside that outside space in a very visible way.”
At St Peter’s, Brackley, in Peterborough diocese, the Vicar, the Revd Richard Duncan, who reopened the church for private prayer on Monday, said: “Even if Sunday worship starts again it will be very limited in what that involves; so we will very much continue with the online services. . . Even though our building has been shut down, the Church hasn’t been shut down. I have been really encouraged by the way people have been serving their community and looking after each other. I hope they will carry on after the lockdown ends.”
An online poll of priests in Devon, in Exeter diocese, found that about half of those questioned wanted to open at least one of their churches this week. The Team Vicar of Newton Abbot, the Revd Nick Debney, describing it as “a move in the right direction”, said: “Lockdown has helped us reconnect prayer with the home; now is a chance to reconnect prayer with the house of God.”
At Portsmouth Cathedral, staff spent Sunday in preparations, setting up a one-way system and hand-sanitiser stations. Some of those who came on Tuesday were in tears, and many were saying how grateful they were that it was open. The Dean, the Very Revd Dr Anthony Cane, said: “I was particularly moved that the third person through the doors — after two regulars, delighted to be back — was a first-time visitor, desperate to light a candle for a loved one.”
The church operations director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Michael Angell, said in a statement: “The announcement by the Government over the weekend is very welcome news for the church community across the country, but, ahead of opening, churches will need to take proactive action.
“It is essential that churches follow the guidance developed by the Government and the Church of England before and after opening for private worship. Ecclesiastical have produced some high-level guidance which can be found on their website. If in any doubt, churches should follow the advice they have been given by their own respective denominations.”
In Wales, which is still in lockdown, churches are hoping that an announcement will be made today, relaxing restrictions from Monday. A church spokesman said that any reopening would be measured rather than rushed. “We have been working closely with the Welsh government to develop protocols for when churches can open for private prayer.
“These will be quite strict, to ensure people’s safety, and we will, of course, be relying on help from our volunteers, many of whom might be shielding. We have prepared a rigorous checklist [that] churches will have to complete and have signed off by their archdeacon before they will be allowed to open at all.”