CLERGY in the Church of England must not enter their own churches, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said.
On Monday night, the Prime Minister named places of worship as among the buildings that must shut, and banned all weddings and baptisms, apart from emergency baptisms in hospitals (News, 23 March), in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
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The move came after dioceses with parishes in London called for all their churches to be shut (News, 22 March). The instruction for London clergy, however, permitted those living nearby to continue to use the church building: “Clergy who live adjacent to their churches may still go into the building and pray and even celebrate the eucharist.” Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday extended this closure to all churches in the UK.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, the Archbishops wrote to all clergy and included them in the ban. “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well, and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own.”
The reason for this, they say is to “take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.”
They continue: “We must also do all that we can to provide resources and support for those who are isolated, fearful and vulnerable. But we have to do this from our homes.”
The Archbishops emphasise the need for clergy to continue to support congregations in prayer and on the telephone or other forms of technology. And they encourage clergy to live-stream from their homes.
They conclude: “We are all having to get used to being the Church differently. It is not easy. However, our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning (though we long for the day when this way of knowing Christ can return) but by the service we offer to others.”
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Government guidance was updated on Wednesday to say that a “minister of religion” was permitted “to go to their place of worship, including to broadcast an act of worship to people outside the place of worship, whether over the internet or otherwise”.
The Archbishops’ letter has, as happened last week (News, 20 March), been met by differing interpretations in the dioceses. On Tuesday evening, the College of Bishops for the London diocese wrote to clergy stating that they understood “the need for a consistent approach to all worship and occasional offices”.
They write, none the less, that “where the church is accessible by an internal door from the clergy home, or can be accessed from the clergy home without leaving the curtilage of the church, we will encourage those — and only those — clergy to pray in their churches privately and to consider whether they could live stream their services from within the church building.”
The reason, they said, was that “many will find comfort, especially in uncertain times, in being part virtually of worship which is taking place in a church building.”
The Bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, however, wrote to his clergy later in the evening, to support the Archbishops’ stance to the letter.
“I believe it is right for us to set an example and model what the Government is requesting in a desperate bid to flatten out the trajectory of coronavirus infection and to protect our NHS, if at all possible, from being overwhelmed.
“We know that this will seem especially hard for those of you who live next door to, or on the same site as, your church; but the Archbishops believe that it is right that we all share the challenges of these extraordinary times as equally as possible and conduct even private worship strictly in the confines of our own homes.”
The London College of Bishops raises another concern arising out of the advice to close churches. “Many of our buildings are isolated and vulnerable to vandalism and theft and will need to be checked regularly for security purposes.”
Read more on the story in our leader comment
Comment: When priest and people are apart
The Archbishops’ letter in full:
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, it is imperative that for the health of the nation and in order for the National Health Service itself to manage the increase in those requiring medical help, the Church of England strictly observes the new guidelines on staying at home and only making journeys that are absolutely necessary, such as shopping for essential items and to take daily exercise.
Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own. A notice explaining this should be put on the church door. We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.
We must also do all that we can to provide resources and support for those who are isolated, fearful and vulnerable. But we have to do this from our homes. A number of national online resources, including weekly streamed services and daily audio, as well as additional worship provision on the BBC are there to help us, and more are on their way. Please do all that you can to point people to this content.
It is also imperative that as the Church of Jesus Christ, called to offer hope and light in the darkness of this world’s ills, we maintain a praying presence for our community, though from today onwards this must happen from our hearts and from our homes. Our Church buildings are closed but the Church must continue to support and encourage our communities making use of telephones and other forms of technology to keep in touch with people and ensure pastoral care is maintained, and as shepherds of Christ’s flock we are committed to making this happen.
In summary, these are the guidelines we must all now follow:
1. Our church buildings are closed for public worship and for private prayer.
2. Emergency baptisms can take place in hospital or at home, though subject to strict hygienic precautions and physical distancing as far as possible.
3. There can be no weddings in church buildings until further notice.
4. Funerals can only happen at the Crematorium or at the graveside. Only immediate family members can attend (if the crematorium allows) — that is, spouse or partner, parents and children, keeping their distance in the prescribed way.
5. Live streaming of services is more important than ever and is still permissible from homes. We encourage us all to consider how we can be as creative as possible with streaming services and other resources. There are many, many fantastic examples of churches and clergy using technology to reach and engage communities. Read more guidance here.
6. Foodbanks should continue where possible under strict guidelines and may have to move to be delivery points not places where people gather. If you can do consider making a financial contribution to your nearest foodbank.
These are unprecedented times. We are all having to get used to being the Church differently. It is not easy. However, our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning (though we long for the day when this way of knowing Christ can return) but by the service we offer to others. Therefore, and despite these very harrowing restrictions, please do all that you can to minister to your people safely, especially to the sick, the vulnerable and the poor.
With our thanks to you all for you are bearing at this extraordinary time. We know that God is with us and we pray with you that in the midst of all this pain and sorrow we can remain focussed on the One who gives us hope.
With every blessing