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C of E medical adviser gets tough with differing dioceses

18 March 2020

Clergy confused as dioceses differ over services suspension


THE Medical Adviser to the Church of England emphasised on Wednesday that the suspension of public worship must be implemented “without exception”, after advice from individual bishops appeared to contradict it, prompting confusion among the clergy.

In a letter issued on Tuesday, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced that no public services should take place until further notice: “Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold.”

‘There’s no service’

They encouraged clergy to “continue their pattern of daily prayer and, if it is your practice and can be done within the constraints as set out, a daily eucharist. It is vital to observe strictly the protocols of hygiene and, where necessary, self-isolation and social distancing. This will not be public worship that everyone can attend, but an offering of prayer and praise for the nation and for the world.”

Clergy were also requested to keep church buildings open “for private prayer wherever possible, as we know so many do all the time”. Separate guidance advised the display of “appropriate signage to remind people of the need to keep at least two metres apart”.

Within hours, different interpretations of the advice were circulating online. A central question was whether clergy would be joined by worshippers at the daily Offices or say them alone, and whether the laity could still receive communion. Clergy also questioned how public worship could be avoided if churches were to be kept open throughout the day. Some expressed frustration at the variation in episcopal advice and concern that people were seeking out loopholes in the Archbishops’ guidance.

On Thursday, the Archbishops issued a clarifying Ad Clerum, which acknowledged that “not receiving holy communion is a serious loss for the people we serve”. 

An ad clerum from the Bishops in the diocese of London issued on Tuesday said: “Clergy can consider offering lots of smaller opportunities for prayer, especially on a Sunday, so that people can gather in small groups — say, fewer than ten people — well spread out round the church. . .

“Those with a weekday mass tradition may wish to preserve some vestige of this, provided that there are few attenders and they preserve physical distancing (two metres apart is the current advice) in a well-aerated building (communion in one kind only).”

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, issued a separate letter, which suggested that priests saying mass could be joined by others, who should sit at least two metres apart: “This may well mean thinking differently about how the space in your church is used, with habitual use of the nave rather than celebrations in side chapels and small spaces.”

It also appeared to assume that some parishioners would continue to receive at communion, advising that “all the directives about the distribution of Holy Communion which have already been issued should be scrupulously observed”. They should be reminded that there was “no obligation” to receive it, but he would also issue further advice about “how we might best ensure that all those who do wish to receive Holy Communion at Easter will be able to do so safely”.

Late on Wednesday, the Church’s national adviser on medical ethics, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, said: “Public worship has been suspended in line with government advice in order to protect people as, together, we tackle this coronavirus epidemic.

“It is essential that this advice is followed without exception for the good of us all, but especially for the elderly who form the core of very many parish congregations.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “We have been clear that public worship has been suspended.”

London was not the only diocese to suggest that clergy would not be alone while saying the daily Offices. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday: “Public worship is on hold, but let’s be creative. Hold more services in church, not less. Start a rota for those who can’t come on Sunday to come in ones and twos to Morning and Evening Prayer. Start a Daily Eucharist.” On Thursday, he tweeted: “Sorry for the confusion. Public worship has stopped, large and small. The ministers of the church, ordained and lay, continue to offer prayer each day for the community.”


In his letter, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, also suggested that “small groups of healthy Christians” could gather to pray in churches, while observing the distance rule. On Wednesday, he sent another ad clerum stating that, while this had been his understanding of the national guidance at the time, Morning and Evening Prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist were to be said by “clergy and ministers only” and “on behalf of everyone”. He added: “Please hold this line.”

The suspension came after religious services were specifically included in the Government’s restrictions, announced on Monday evening. In answer to a Commons question, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock said: “ We have seen from elsewhere in the world how sometimes it is through religious gatherings that the virus can spread, so, with the deepest regret and the heaviest of heart, we include faith groups and gatherings of faith within the advice.”

A central message from both the Archbishops and Bishops was that the Church had not “closed” but “changed”. “Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead”, the Archbishops wrote. “Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day. We may not be able to pray with people in the ways that we are used to, but we can certainly pray for people. And we can certainly offer practical care and support.”

The live-streaming of services, already under way in some parishes, has been encouraged.

The guidance issued by Church House demands a degree of interpretation by clergy, leaving open, for example, what might constitute a “necessary” pastoral visit to someone in self-isolation. Bishops in the diocese of Durham advised that “face-to-face visits should only be in extremis”, and that visiting of hospitals, care homes, and schools must be done “in agreement with the relevant institution and the rules they are operating”.

While the central guidance states that weddings and funerals can still take place, some dioceses issued specific advice on numbers — eight for a funeral in the diocese of Durham. Advice about baptisms is still being considered. The Church in Wales has ruled that all weddings scheduled for before 31 July should be postponed. Any exceptions made for “pressing pastoral reasons” should be limited to a maximum of ten people: the couple, the minister, two witnesses, and up to five others.

Additional guidance, issued on Wednesday evening, advised that immediate family only attend funerals, adding: “Sadly, those over the age of 70 and those with an underlying health condition are strongly discouraged from attending in the present circumstances.”

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, advised that clergy who keep churches open should “remove all prayer books, hymn books, prayer cards, etc. that might be used by more than one person”. Clergy in the diocese of Gloucester were advised that home groups should be cancelled.

A long ad clerum issued by the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, on Wednesday evening asked clergy to “use your discretion and offer leadership locally, working within the hygiene and distancing guidelines. . .

“Our church buildings can remain open, but attention must be paid to the serious advice of public-health specialists on how they might be used in ways that do not endanger those who enter. . . If the odd person comes in, they can sit at a requisite distance and listen or join in.”

The eucharist should be celebrated in church by the priest, and, “in keeping with Catholic tradition, communion can be taken by the celebrant and received ‘spiritually’ by anybody else.”

He was among several Bishops who urged clergy to take care of themselves, acknowledging that a significant number were over the age of 70. The latest ministry statistics suggest that, of the nearly 20,000 active clergy serving in the Church of England, about 7000 are continuing to serve past retirement age.

In their ad clerum on Thursday, the Archbishops encouraged bishops to give their blessing and permission for incumbents to invite “suitable individuals” to help ensure that a daily pattern of prayer was maintained. But they stressed: “this is not public worship by other means.”

They advised: “When someone turns up at our churches when this prayer or the Eucharist is taking place, they should be politely invited to sit somewhere else in the building and then afterwards it can be explained that because of physical distancing and other guidance we are following to protect people, public worship is not taking place, but that they are the whole community is being prayed for.”

They added: “The Eucharist is, sadly, no longer a public act of worship. Therefore, only the priest and one or two others should participate . . . Not receiving holy communion is a serious loss for the people we serve, and we must acknowledge this.” They asked clergy to encourage people to use a service of “spiritual communion” at home.

Much could be learned from Jewish people about keeping faith “alive in our homes and our houses”, they suggested. Holy Week could be “a profound experience of walking the way of the cross and experiencing the isolation that Jesus experienced as everyone fell away as he faced the cross alone.”


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