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Closed but still working: report from New York, worst-hit by the coronavirus

30 March 2020


The Revd Canon Carl Turner, celebrating without a congregation in St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, New York

The Revd Canon Carl Turner, celebrating without a congregation in St Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, New York

A NEW YORK priest has described the transformation of the “City that never sleeps” into a ghost town, its streets largely empty except for people who are homeless.

Canon Carl Turner is Rector of St Thomas’s, in the centre of Manhattan, two blocks from Central Park and close to Times Square — where, he reports, “the lights are still on, but there is no one to see them.”

New York is the state worst-hit by the coronavirus in what is now the worst-hit country in the world, with more than 140,000 confirmed cases, though the death toll is lower than Italy and Spain. Of the national total of 2493 deaths from Covid-19 by the start of Monday, more than 1000 have been in New York.

Unlike in the UK, churches in the United States have not been told to close, but they must not hold gatherings of more than 50 people. The overall congregation of St Thomas’s is much larger. It shut for public worship two weeks ago, and closed the church doors for private prayer last week, after it became apparent staff were having to travel in and open up for just a handful of people.

Since then, as in the rest of the state, the clergy have focused on online services. Sunday’s service had an audience of 6000, and daily intercessions online are attracting congregations of more than one hundred.

Canon Turner, a former Canon of Exeter Cathedral, reported at the weekend: “Prayer and intercessions are still seen as an essential, and many churches also run large social programmes that people rely on. The Holy Apostles’ soup kitchen serves a thousand lunches a day, and it is still open. Very few people may be venturing out, but there are still homeless people on the streets, and there is a real concern for them.”

Staff and clergy from St Thomas’s have been on the streets distributing hand sanitisers and other essentials to the homeless.

Thousands of children in New York are also without a permanent home, and schools, though closed, are providing three take-away meals a day for children, to try and keep them fed during the lockdown.

The fact that the church is unable to take donations or offerings for candles was beginning to bite, Canon Turner said, though the diocese of New York has announced a reduction in parish share of 25 per cent for this year.

The situation across the United States is forecast to get far worse. There are predictions that Covid-19 could kill as many as 200,000 people, as millions are infected with the virus.

President Trump, who initially insisted that the US would be open for business again by Easter, has now extended social distancing measures until the end of April, saying such measures were “the way you win”. He none the less predicted that the US “will be well on our way to recovery” by June. People have been told to avoid non-essential travel and going out to restaurants or bars, and gatherings are limited to fewer than ten people. In the worst-hit states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, residents are banned from travelling anywhere for 14 days.

There are reports, however, of churches that are refusing to stop public worship or obey social-distancing guidelines. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne from River Tampa Bay Church in Florida said in a video: “I’ve got news for you, this church will never close. The only time the church is closed is when the Rapture is taking place. This Bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

Another church leader is rumoured to have boasted that he could tell his congregation “to lick the church clean with their tongues” without harm, and they’d do it, so great was their faith.

And in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church defied the ban on gatherings by holding a service for more than 1000 people. He told a local radio station: “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear, and we are going to assemble, no matter what someone says.”

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