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Sudden visitation

27 March 2020

THERE is no question that the present situation regarding the coronavirus is grave. To appreciate this, one need look no further than the less than reassuring message being given by the NHS to cancer patients: “At the moment the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t mean that everyone will experience delays to their treatment.” To clear hospital wards ready for an influx of Covid-19 sufferers, distressed NHS staff are having to perform a rough-and-ready triage on their non-coronavirus patients — delaying surgery, halting treatments mid-term — in the knowledge that such actions (or rather inaction) will compromise their patients’ recovery. And, all the while, the progress of the virus in the UK marches in step with the outbreak in Italy.

Thus the Archbishops’ letter on Tuesday, enforcing the shutting of all churches, must be broadly welcomed. When parks and outdoor areas are being closed or carefully policed, it is clearly wise to shut buildings to which many vulnerable people repair. We say “broadly”. Many priests can reach their churches without the risk of encountering other people. Some, indeed, are as close to their churches as are the Archbishops to their chapels at Lambeth and Bishopthorpe. The Archbishops give no reason for deviating from the advice of the London bishops on Sunday — that clergy who live “adjacent to their churches” may continue to enter, pray, and celebrate — other than that clergy must “take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave”.

Theologically, of course, the eucharist can be offered anywhere; but it is more than a symbolic act to offer the sacrament on behalf of the parish in the place where their prayers have been gathered. If commercial managers are being trusted to keep their key staff safe in the workplace, priests can decide whether they can enter a church safely. It would signal that the eucharist, and the church, fall into the category of key activities, alongside the shopping and the exercise that the Archbishops mention. We urge them to reconsider this aspect of their advice.

Beyond that, we encourage Christians to make acts of spiritual communion, trusting in God and not reflecting overmuch on its inherent paradoxes. (Are not all communions spiritual? What is an outward sign of an inward grace without the outward sign? etc.) At the very least, participation allows the body and soul to inhabit the place of deep memory formed by a eucharistic habit. As the rubric at the beginning of the communion of the sick in the Book of Common Prayer says, the laity should be exhorted to “the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ . . . that so doing, they may, in case of sudden visitation, have the less cause to be disquieted for lack of the same”.

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