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Let the clergy pray in their churches

31 March 2020

The Archbishops’ guidance raises many problems, argues Edward Dowler


An empty Holy Trinity, Guildford

An empty Holy Trinity, Guildford

“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.”

This direction from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops, contained in their recent letter to the clergy, goes surprisingly beyond the current restrictions outlined by the Government in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020.

These state that a reasonable excuse for people to leave the place where they are living includes “in the case of a minister of religion or worship leader, to go to their place of worship” (6.2K), and, moreover, that a place of worship may be used “to broadcast an act of worship, whether over the internet or as part of a radio or television broadcast” (5.6b).

We are, of course, in a time of national emergency, when everybody is rightly anxious to slow transmission of the virus as much as possible.

The response to this requires, however, a targeted, research-led approach to risk rather than further restrictions added to an already unprecedented limitation of social freedom in this country. It has frequently been pointed out on various media that the cause of preventing transmission is not necessarily served by ever more repressive measures. It would be helpful to know upon what further scientific advice the Archbishops and bishops have based their ruling.


THE Archbishops’ and bishops’ ruling also has doubtful legal basis. In law, church buildings are vested in their incumbents, who, at their induction, take possession of the temporalities of the benefice. It is not clear that the bishops have any legal ability to issue apparent management instructions that incumbents should not pray in their churches. Legally speaking, this is a matter of conscience for individual clergy, in particular those who are incumbents.

None the less, in at least one diocese the clergy have been threatened with disciplinary action for disobeying the instructions: the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, wrote in an ad clerum on Monday of last week: “I do need to say that for the clergy, failure fully to implement these arrangements could be deemed to be a disciplinary matter — it is that serious.”

The justification most frequently invoked for what has happened is that the clergy “must lead by example”, being “alongside those who are having to self-isolate”.

This understanding of leading by example is also questionable, however. For example, a doctor leads by example by moving among his or her patients to help them; the supermarket employee leads by example by racing around the supermarket to keep the shelves stacked.

These are not activities that could or should be done by everyone. Rather, they are done on behalf of the rest of society, so as to serve the exigencies of the present moment and to help society prepare for a new future. Similarly, what the clergy and other “worship leaders” (as the Government terms them) may be able to do in the current situation is to maintain the prayer life of their churches on behalf of the people of the parish as an act of service in the present, and in preparation for the day when, God willing, everyone can return.

A further point relates to the mental and spiritual well-being of the clergy — on whom there are a variety of demands in the current situation. The news indicates that priests may soon have heavy demands laid on them, in particular if there is a sharp increase in the number of funerals.

This has been the case in Italy, where reportedly 50 priests have died of the Coronavirus. In such circumstances, for their own spiritual and mental well-being, they at least should have the option of remaining connected with their church buildings. More prosaically, the presence of young children, the constantly ringing phone, and the internet mean that vicarages are not always havens of peace, conducive to prayer.


IS THE Archbishops’ and bishops’ ruling practical? Guidance issued last Friday by the Archbishops’ Council’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Division states that “it may be reasonable for one designated person to enter the church to check that it remains safe and secure.” In most cases, regular checks will be not only reasonable, but essential. A curious situation will arise in which clergy and lay leaders are effectively obliged to perform janitorial duties, but will risk episcopal censure if they say any prayers while doing so.

The Archbishops’ and bishops’ ruling implies a somewhat magical view, in which the consecration of churches continues unaffected even when they have temporarily been mothballed.

It feels like a more Anglican approach to say that, while these buildings have been set apart for a particular purpose, their consecration is sustained by the offering of prayer and worship which continues to be made within them from day to day. Without this offering, the buildings will, in a very recognisable way, go cold.

To some of their neighbours, empty and uninhabited churches will soon come to seem like spooky castles that haunt rather than illuminate their communities. To others (especially the many who will be quite unaware of the enormous pastoral and spiritual efforts being made at this time), closure will simply signify that the Church of England has shut up shop and abandoned people in their hour of need.

In a final related point, the Archbishops’ and bishops’ ruling creates an interesting ecumenical situation, since the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales expect their clergy to offer mass every day in their churches.

The Church of England has traditionally played a particular part in the consecration of the entire parish by the continuous offering of worship, which signifies that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is; the compass of the world and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24.1). We have reached a situation in which this aspect of the life of the parish church — one that often those of other denominations have been happy to acknowledge — has effectively been ceded to Roman Catholicism, with perhaps far-reaching consequences.


ONE aspect of the current situation is that guidance is constantly changing as new challenges become clear. My hope is that the Archbishops and bishops may see fit to change their guidance also.

Rather than mothball the parish churches, my plea is that clergy might actually be encouraged to visit their parish churches regularly; to pray in them for their parishioners and ring the bell to signify that they are doing so; to live-stream or record services from them as much as possible, given the current restrictions; and to use key features of the churches as teaching aids for those who are currently unable to gather inside them.

To keep our buildings warm and alive in this way will do the best service to those who are eventually able to return and joyfully sing again with us: “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122.1).

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.


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