ALL church services have been suspended from today, Tuesday, in the battle to stem the spread of coronavirus.
In a letter released at lunchtime announcing the decision, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York write that, far from “shutting up shop”, however, the Church must face the challenge by becoming a radically different kind of organisation, “rooted in prayer and serving others”.
The decision comes less than a day after the Government announced unprecedented peacetime measures to try to control the spread of the virus, including restrictions on public gatherings, transport, and working.
The Archbishops hope that church buildings may, where practical, remain open as places of prayer for the community, observing social distancing recommendations. They also urge clergy to maintain the ancient pattern of daily prayer and, where possible, the eucharist — live-streaming their worship if they have the resources to do so.
It is understood that funerals and weddings can still go ahead, but the initial advice is that these should be scaled back as much as possible, and that social contact be avoided. Advice about baptisms is still being considered.
The suspension comes 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 taken advice on how to respond to the crisis, including from our ethics committee, which includes representatives of the major religious faiths.
“It is true that we include religious groups in our advice about social contact. 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.”
The Archbishops urge congregations to be in the forefront of providing practical care and support for the most poor and the most vulnerable during the crisis.
They write: “Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead. 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.”
A technical note explains: “In normal circumstances, individual incumbents and Parochial Church Councils would apply under Canon B14A to bishops for dispensation from holding the public services required by the Canons of the Church of England.
“However, on the basis of legal advice, and in the light of the Government’s advice on preventing the spread of infection, we consider that the canon law doctrine of necessity can be relied on and that the public services required by the Canons need not — and should not — take place until further notice.
“This advice covers the public services which the Canons normally require to be held every Sunday and on principal feasts and holy days (Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer) as well as the weekday Daily Offices.”
The Archbishops suggest that community action would keep the Church’s presence alive in the community. “Then by our service, and by our love, Jesus Christ will be made known, and the hope of the gospel — a hope that can counter fear and isolation — will spread across our land.”
They described the situation as “a defining moment” for the Church, asking: “Are we truly are a Church for all, or just the Church for ourselves? We urge you sisters and brothers to become a different sort of Church in these coming months: hopeful and rooted in the offering of prayer and praise and overflowing in service to the world.”
The C of E will be providing a range of resources to enable people to continue to walk with God and will significantly expand its output with audio of a simple daytime prayer and night prayer service, more video content and some livestreaming, new mental health reflections to support people, and webinars to help churches stream sermons, events and make the most of social media. As much as possible will be available in simple downloadable and printable formats for those who can’t easily access the technology.
Further information on what the suspension of public worship will mean will be made available as soon as possible on the Church of England website.
The response in the Church of Ireland is more piecemeal, writes Gregg Ryan. Three dioceses in the Irish Republic have decided to cancel public worship, at least until the end of March. Some churches may remain open for private worship, but the advice is to parishioners across the island is to avail themselves of the worship provided on social media which are proving popular. Elsewhere services are continuing to be held but with caution.
At the time of writing, churches in Northern Ireland are being less stringent, but this is likely to change soon.
The dioceses that have so far cancelled services are Meath & Kildare, Cashel, Ferns & Ossory, and Cork, Cloyne & Ross. Funerals and weddings are continuing, though scaled back. In the case of funerals, a later memorial service is being recommended. Several Roman Catholic dioceses are following the same policy.
The Bishop of Meath & Kildare, the Rt Revd Pat Storey, explained: “Having just buried my father, I am deeply sorry for people for whom funerals are going to be smaller, with perhaps a larger memorial service later in the year. Weddings, too, will have to be limited to under 100 people and we feel for brides and grooms faced with difficult decisions.”
The full text of the Archbishops’ letter:
To All Church of England Clergy
17 March 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
We wanted to write to you today to offer you advice and encouragement at this very difficult time for the whole of our country. Please find attached to this letter some careful guidance. We write this letter having consulted with the bishops across the Church of England and are grateful to them for their wisdom and help.
Thank you for all that you do and will continue to do as disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of the Gospel. We recognise what a very unusual and painful time this is for everyone and we want to stress that we are praying for you all and are very grateful for all that you are doing.
It has always been the historic vocation of the Church of England to be the Church for everyone. William Temple, one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury and York of the last century, is often quoted as saying that we are the one organisation which exists for the benefit of its “non-members”.
As the challenge of the coronavirus grips the world, and as the Government asks every individual and every organisation to rethink its life, we are now asking the Church of England in all its parishes, chaplaincies and ministries to serve all people in a new way.
Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold.
But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop. Far from it. We need to look at new ways of serving everyone:
1. Where you can and where it is prudent, we encourage all 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. Please do of course keep the church buildings open for private prayer wherever possible as we know so many do all the time.
2. If churches and worshipping communities have the resources to live stream then they should do so. This will enable the people of God and anyone and everyone who looks to God for support and meaning in this time of crisis to participate in the life of worship at home. At the same time, both nationally and in our dioceses, we will produce and provide resources for prayer and worship in the home. This will be especially important for those who are self-isolating, but also for the benefit of everyone.
3. Many people are going to suffer during these coming months as the coronavirus reaches its peak. Tragically there will be deaths and so many will be grieving and fearful. We, the Church of Jesus Christ, with our sisters and brothers from other Christian churches, must be in the forefront of providing practical care and support for the most poor and the most vulnerable, and we offer our services to all those who are beginning to think through how best to provide for those in need. Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead.
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. Please do carry on supporting the local foodbank and buy extra provisions for it. Ensure the night shelters wherever possible are kept open. There are many very encouraging schemes happening right across our country in communities to focus on caring for the most vulnerable, so do continue to play your part in those. Then by our service, and by our love, Jesus Christ will be made known, and the hope of the gospel — a hope that will counter fear and isolation — will spread across our land.
We have called, along with our fellow church leaders, for a day of prayer and action this coming Sunday — Mothering Sunday (22 March). Mothering Sunday has always been both a day of celebration for many and a sensitive and emotional day for some. Wherever you are this Sunday please do join in this day of prayer and action and remember especially those who are sick or anxious, and all involved in our Health Service.
As one action, we are calling on everyone to place a lighted candle in their window at 7.00 p.m. as a sign of solidarity and hope in the light of Christ that can never be extinguished.
This is a defining moment for the Church of England. Are we truly a Church for all, or just the Church for ourselves? We urge you sisters and brothers to become a different sort of church in these coming months: hopeful and rooted in the offering of prayer and praise and overflowing in service to the world. Please, therefore, join us in this great challenge; and pray for our Government and nation, for each other, and especially for those who work in our health and emergency services.
With every blessing,