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Prolocutors defend decision to close churches

03 April 2020

C of E medical adviser praises action on virus; charities launch urgent appeals; deaths rise


A herd of goats that normally live on the Great Orme Country Park, in Llandudno, have been seen cavorting in the seaside town, most likely drawn by the current absence of people

A herd of goats that normally live on the Great Orme Country Park, in Llandudno, have been seen cavorting in the seaside town, most likely drawn by th...

CLERGY must accept the archiepiscopal directive to keep churches closed — even for their own private prayer — to save lives at risk from the coronavirus, the clergy Prolocutors of the Provinces Canterbury and York have said.

In a letter to all clergy on Tuesday, Canon Simon Butler (Canterbury) and Canon Chris Newlands (York) state that, while their position entitles them “to be critical of some decisions and policies” of the church hierarchy, “in these unprecedented times, we wish to offer our full and unequivocal support to our Archbishops and Bishops.”

The decision to close all churches, even for private prayer and use by the incumbent, has angered some clerics. The Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester, the Ven. Dr Edward Dowler, writes in the Church Times online this week that the instruction “goes surprisingly beyond the current restrictions outlined by the Government”. He argues that shutting off churches is impractical and may damage the “spiritual and mental well-being” of clerics. His concerns have been shared by many correspondents to the paper this week.

Canon Butler and Canon Newlands say that these arguments have already been considered: “We have been briefed on some of the wider reasoning for the closure of our cathedrals, churches, and chapels, which we accept is causing some of you to feel angry and perplexed.

“However, we believe it is right to accept and to take on trust our bishops and Archbishops in this matter. They do not make these decisions lightly. The points made by those most concerned have, we believe, been part of their consideration in this decision.”

The safety of both clergy and laity is more important than legal quibbles, they write. “It is not the time for arguments about whether bishops have a legal right to do this, nor to add extra demands on our Archbishops when they are attempting to lead our response to Coronavirus alongside other faith leaders and to assist the Government in its work.

“We simply must lead by example by staying in our homes, and demonstrate that we can stay at home, including when leading worship for the people in our care. Every trip we take outside our home endangers life: ours, our family’s, even perfect strangers. Such trips should only be taken for essential ministry.”

In an article published on Wednesday, the London College of Bishops suggest that “Some parish churches may wish to temporarily to suspend the celebration of Holy Communion until they are able to meet together in person again.”

If a priest chooses to continue the eucharist alone (i.e. if there is no one else in his or her household), it should be live-streamed where possible. “If that is not feasible, at the very least, it should be clearly advertised in the parish and among the congregation when the Holy Communion is to be celebrated in the home of the priest, with or without the presence of another member of that household.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullaly, brought this to the attention of clergy in her diocese, in a letter on Wednesday.

“Under the provisions of Canon B40, I, Sarah, Bishop of London, give blanket permission for priests to ‘celebrate the Holy Communion elsewhere than in a consecrated building’, and to do so in their parsonage house. This is to facilitate the live streaming of services of Holy Communion from the parsonage house. This provision shall last until 31st May and may be renewed if necessary.

“Furthermore, because it will not be possible for the confirmed to make their Easter Communion this year, except by spiritual communion, I, Sarah, Bishop of London, hereby dispense with the requirement of Canon B15 for the confirmed to receive Holy Communion at Easter and Whitsun.”

In an interview with the Church Times this week, the C of E’s chief medical adviser, Brendan McCarthy, praised the Church’s response. “Both within the Church and wider society, there has been a great pooling of minds, resources, and energies, with egos taking a back seat. . . Clergy worshipping at home demonstrates their identification with people who are living under the necessary restriction of not being able to go to their parish church.”

His concern, however, was that “when the peak of this epidemic has passed, there will be pressure to ease restrictions too soon, resulting in a second upsurge in infections and deaths.”

Research from Imperial College, London, suggests that Covid-19 is 170 times more likely to kill people who are in their 70s than people in their 20s. The latest statistics from the Ministry Division of the Church of England suggest that 42 per cent of its rural worshipping communities are aged over 70 compared with 28 per cent of people in urban worshipping communities.

PERSHORE ABBEYMembers of Pershore Abbey Embroidery Guild are creating cloth bags for nurses to take home used uniforms for washing, minimising any risk of infection — the bags too can go in the wash

The Church’s national rural officer, the Revd Dr Mark Betson, and the chief executive of the Arthur Rank Centre, the Revd Claire Maxim, have been assessing the impact on rural churches.

They said on Tuesday: “These statistics make it all too plain that rural churches are likely to be impacted significantly by the virus, and many people will be self-isolating. Each church has a role to play, not only in providing the excellent prayerful, practical, context specific responses we have seen, but also in passing clear, reliable information to people who are alone, unsure, and afraid.”

There was currently no central record of local support groups; so information- sharing was vital, they said. “Our plea is that church leaders work with local groups, if they are not doing so already, in order to help get the support they are offering to those who most need it. There has never been a more important time to build partnerships in the community so that the people of the Church can be loved by others as they would want to love them.”

The Prolocutors write that many retired clergy with permission to officiate are also over 70, and therefore vulnerable and in need of pastoral care themselves. Clerics would also be required to conduct funerals, of which there were likely to be an increased number in the coming months.

“This ministry will take its toll,” they write. “There will be colleagues, friends, congregation members, even family who will die. We will need to be resilient and find strength in our daily prayers.”

The Inter Faith Network has urged faith leaders and communities to handle funeral preparations “sensitively” as deaths from the pandemic increase. In a statement on Tuesday, the co-chairs and forum moderators said: “It is our hope that deaths of people of different faiths and beliefs are handled sensitively and that there is not friction over arrangements. It is vital that this matter is handled well.”

They were already concerned that prejudice was increasing as a result of isolation. “We have a concern that in isolation some individuals may become increasingly affected by misinformation, particularly on social media — and also by extreme views including coronavirus conspiracy theories that have been targeting particular groups such as Jews or East Asians. We call on Government and relevant agencies to do all that they can to tackle this.”

As of Thursday, there were more than 34,100 cases of Covid-19 in the UK, of whom 2926 had died, including a 13-year-old boy. The highest number of reported cases in the world is now in the United States (216,768). Infections in the UK are rising by the thousand each day; in the US, the rise is tens of thousands a day.

Christian charities have launched emergency appeals for donations to help the most vulnerable at home and abroad. In the UK, the Children’s Society is raising funds to protect children “trapped at home” in difficult, sometimes abusive, situations without support.

One of its frontline support workers, Becky, explained: “When a child is in imminent danger, we arrange an emergency response. We are the only workers doing this for some young people.” This may be delivering care packages, providing urgent support and advice, or in some cases arranging an emergency response for children in imminent danger.

The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, said: “The coronavirus is a threat to our health and normal way of life, but it is also an indirect threat to children that are already vulnerable. It is vitally important that these children are not forgotten, and our practitioners are able to give them as much support as possible.”

The charity, like many others in the UK, is struggling to raise funds under the lockdown (News, 27 March). “We are facing a significant drop in income as we have had to cancel fundraising events and temporarily close our shops. We need the public to support our emergency appeal so that we can continue to support children that are in desperate need.” (Listen to an interview with Mr Russell on the Church Times Podcast).

DIOCESE OF EXETERSam Rylands (right), a trainee priest from Bristol who was on a visit to the Christian Melanesion Brotherhood in the Solomon Islands, is stranded after flights were cancelled    

Christian Aid said that it would be prioritising the poorest countries and marginalised communities, which, it said, would “bear the brunt” of the pandemic. Without immediate intervention, areas already suffering from humanitarian crises, ongoing conflict, poor healthcare, and a lack of basic hygiene would struggle to cope.

The head of the aid agency’s humanitarian division, Nick Guttmann, said: “Many health facilities, at the local and national levels, have sub-optimal infection prevention and control measures, due in part to lack of water and sanitation facilities. Further humanitarian needs may also occur because of excessive pressure on these stretched health-care systems, putting strain on other essential services such as education.”

Christian Aid and other international aid agencies have also expressed concern for migrant communities, particularly people living in poor conditions in refugee camps around the world (News, 27 March). Their calls to support these communities have been echoed by both Roman Catholic leaders in the US and the Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties.

A coalition of Roman Catholic agencies in the country, including MRS, the Catholic Health Association, and Catholic Charities, wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security: “During this global pandemic and national emergency, access to treatment and care for immigrants, including undocumented individuals, is critical to tracking and responding to the crisis. Removing barriers to testing and treatment not only saves lives but keeps all Americans safer.”

Meanwhile, the Geneva Council has written to the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for action to address the poor treatment of migrant workers around the world, many of whom are not given access to proper healthcare.

“Tokyo 2020 has already faced substantial criticism over its treatment of migrant workers. Expo 2020, which will take place in the United Arab Emirates, follows a similar pattern of being heavily reliant on migrant labour but has not been called out for the poor practices and discriminatory treatment of migrant workers.”

Last week, the Prime Minister of Japan confirmed that the Tokyo Olympics had been postponed for 12 months. The Geneva Council expressed concern that work has continued at the facilities of the Expo, despite more positive cases being confirmed in the country.

“Migrant workers in the UAE and elsewhere represent a vulnerable group with limited access to healthcare and poor living conditions, including in cramped, overcrowded, or substandard accommodation. We believe that they should not be treated differently to other groups and more needs to be done to protect them from the risk of infection from coronavirus.”

New General Synod may be postponed. Last week, the Government accepted a new clause in its emergency coronavirus Bill which allows the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to postpone elections to the General Synod and extend the term of the current Synod beyond July.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, told the House of Commons: “There is no legal power to extend the current General Synod. New clause 1 provides that power by allowing the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York to ask Her Majesty to postpone the date of dissolution by an Order in Council.”

Singing for the resurrection. The public were invited to clap the NHS from their windows and balconies on Thursday of last week. On Easter Day, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the Northumbria Community are asking Christians to sing for the resurrection.

The organisers have explained: “Because Christians will not be able to worship inside churches this year, Sing Resurrection invites them instead to step out of their doors or into their gardens and sing ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’ and ‘Thine be the Glory’ at 10 a.m. on Easter Sunday.”

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