THE prospect of having two separate tiers of worshippers — one present, the other remote but connected online — when places of worship reopen is exercising minds in the Church of England and elsewhere. Other faiths face a similar scenario.
It was voiced by the Bishop of Hertford, Dr Michael Beasley, a former epidemiologist, who said last Friday: “Even when we do get back into our buildings, not everybody is going to be able to be there. This is going to demand that we offer worship both in our buildings and online.
“It would be dreadful if there was a sense that those in church were the proper stuff and everyone at home was demoted to being the passive recipients. The big question for us is: how are we going to be one body when we are running a two-track system? And how do people at home contribute into the worshipping life of churches just as much as those who are in the building?”
Leaders and representatives of the main faiths met government representatives for the first time last Friday as the work of the places-of-worship task force began. Set up in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement that churches could begin to reopen on 4 July, its first virtual meeting was described as “productive” by the Housing, Communities, and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick.
Mr Jenrick acknowledged that “significant spiritual moments” such as Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and Vaisakhi had been celebrated without the traditional gatherings of families, friends, and congregations, and recognised how challenging that separation had been for people of faith.
The task force agreed that reopening would be phased, when the evidence showed that it was safe. Crucially, faith organisations will be able to reopen at a slower pace if they wish, confirming the widely expressed expectations of church leaders .
The building constraints arise from the continued need for social distancing and strict hygiene measures. The touching of common objects has to be reduced and potential points of transmission need to be identified. “So much of epidemiology comes down to door handles,” Dr Beasley said; he has worked with Ebola-virus infection control in the Congo.
“It’s very tempting to think there’ll be a one-size-fits-all approach to this, and I don’t think that can be the case. So we need to equip everybody with the right understanding so that they can use their common sense to make all the reasonable adjustments to make churches as safe as they can be, while recognising that we can never eliminate all risk.”
Access to churches would have to be supervised for the foreseeable future, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said. Speaking at a briefing put on by the Religion Media Centre on Tuesday, he said that overarching guidance was sought from the Government, but that it must be left to the faiths themselves to be specific about their own needs.
The Director of Communities and Strategies for the United Synagogue, Jo Grose, said that returning would be “drawn out and complex, a setting-by-setting decision based on the building and the demographic”. Acknowledging that the synagogue would now “always run this mixture of virtual and physical”, she said, “it will be a slow, staggered walk back to filling our buildings.”
In response to two written questions, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, said on Monday: “We are working with Government and with representatives of the heritage planning sector to assess the need for building adaptations related to public safety in our cathedral and church buildings, and in particular temporary additions or changes that might need to be made to enable social distancing and proper hygiene. We are committed to enabling our churches and cathedrals to make such changes as might be needed to allow them to reopen safely.”
The House of Bishops issued its latest guidance on 5 May.