THE Archbishop of Canterbury has urged people to go to church and pray this Christmas, saying that church is “one of the safest places to be”. He was speaking on Tuesday after the Government announced that small groups from up to three households would be able to worship together at Christmas if they form an exclusive “bubble”.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, said that the Government had reached an agreement with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to allow a relaxation of the coronavirus rules for five days over Christmas, from 23 to 27 December. “All the governments agreed that we should balance the need to protect public health, while also allowing people to be with their loved ones.”
Archbishop Welby later told BBC’s Newsnight that families would have to consider both the safety of relatives vulnerable to the virus, and the benefit of “a sense of belonging” that “tackles the really dangerous epidemic of isolation, of poor mental health which is also very, very serious”.
Ultimately, he said, “If you really love people, you will see them in a way that is safe, and it is possible.”
Each household can form a Christmas bubble with two other households, meeting indoors, outdoors, or in places of worship (but not in pubs, restaurants, or entertainment venues). This should be the total amount of close mingling over the five days, officials say.
The new relaxation sets churches a welcome but difficult task, as they will have to manage services over the five days with the prospect of larger groups of congregants than before, while continuing to ensure that social distancing between groups and individuals is enforced.
Archbishop Welby said: “I will certainly be in church. That’s one of the safest places to be at the moment, and that will be permitted from the end of lockdown, though there will be very few people there. And we will wait a bit closer to Christmas to make a final decision, but at the moment the plan is that a few of us gather, that we are not too close to each other, we care for each other, we look after each other.”
The news came one day after the publication of the Government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan, which confirmed that churches can reopen for public worship when the lockdown ends on 2 December.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister announced a harsher tier system to replace the lockdown. More areas are to be placed in the higher tiers, with more exacting restrictions.
The Covid-19 Winter Plan allows places of worship to open for congregations in all tiers. In Tier 1, the rules say: “Open, but cannot interact with more than six people.” For Tiers 2 and 3, the rules are identical: “Open, but cannot interact with anyone outside household or support bubble.”
One significant difference relates to weddings. Under the Winter Plan, weddings are permitted again in all tiers. This time, the 15-person limit at a wedding relates to guests. Previously it has included the couple and the officiant. The permitted number at funerals remains at 30 in all tiers. Wedding receptions and wakes are permitted in Tiers 1 and 2, with the same limit on numbers. They are banned in Tier 3.
The Winter Plan states: “The Government . . . recognises the significant sacrifices that people of all faiths have made this year; restrictions have been in place over a number of religious celebrations and observances, and it is thanks to these sacrifices that it has been possible to control the virus. Communal worship will be possible for all faiths in all three tiers, and faith leaders continue to play a key role, consulting on how to make religious practice as safe as possible.”
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the C of E’s Recovery Group, said on Monday: “We are encouraged by the confirmation that places of worship will soon be able to reopen for public worship in all tiers and in all parts of the country.
“Churches and cathedrals can now approach Advent and Christmas with more certainty; a time when we know many people will look forward to attending services celebrating the birth of Jesus. We await more detailed guidance and will update our own advice once this is published.”
The Government has warned that these relaxations are not risk-free. “Even where it is within the rules, meeting with friends and family over Christmas will be a personal judgement for individuals to take, mindful of the risks to themselves and others, particularly those who are vulnerable.” The public is advised to remain cautious, “and that wherever possible people should avoid travelling and minimise social contact”.
By way of mitigation, rapid testing — currently being trialled in Liverpool — is to be introduced more widely; and shops and gyms in all areas will be permitted to open, although pubs and restaurants will be allowed to operate only a takeaway service in Tier 3 regions. Theatres can open with limited capacity in Tiers 1 and 2, but must close in Tier 3. The efficiency of the new tests held out hope for closer contact, Mr Johnson said.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, told ITV on Tuesday that the new rules were “encouraging” but more encouraging was that a vaccine was on its way. “The danger is that we have to patient for a few months more until that’s rolled out and we still have to continue to be very careful and observing as best we can the restrictions that we have learnt to live with.
“It is good news, because worship is at the heart of who we are and as we approach this Christmas season, we know that many people will want to join in our services; for many that will be online but there will be things happening in church.”
This week, Oxford University announced on Monday that initial trials of its two-dose vaccine had proved it to be more than 70 per cent effective; up to 90 per cent in some cases. Three other vaccines from Germany, the United States, and Russia have already shown positive results, prompting cathedrals to offer their spaces for distribution (News, 13 November).
Oxford has partnered with AstraZeneca to distribute the vaccine “on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the pandemic across the world, and in perpetuity to low- and middle-income countries”.
The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said on Wednesday: “So many people and skills have come together to create the Oxford vaccine: a world-class research university with massively talented people working together; the skill to manage every stage of the process, including international clinical trials; superb leadership which saw the need and responded with urgency; and a humanitarian concern for the whole world which looked for ways to release the vaccine at cost to those who stand most in need.
“News of the Oxford vaccine brings great comfort and hope for the UK and our interconnected world. At a time when the UK commitment to aid spending is under threat, the vaccine works for developing countries and is priced at or below cost. It is indeed a vaccine for the world. It is also an expression of love. And, without that, nothing else matters”.