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If shops, why not churches? Government challenged over restrictions

02 June 2020


The IKEA furniture store in Wembley, north London, which reopened with long queues on Monday

The IKEA furniture store in Wembley, north London, which reopened with long queues on Monday

THE Government is continuing to review when it might be safe to ease restrictions on places of worship, the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, told a Downing Street briefing on Sunday.

It was working very closely with faith leaders, he said. Its places-of-worship task force met for the first time on 15 May (News, 22 May).

Mr Jenrick addressed the discrepancy between the easing of coronavirus restrictions on retail premises and the firm instruction that churches and other places of worship remain closed to worshippers.

“I can understand how people of faith would consider it strange that shops, cafés, pubs, restaurants, many other settings might be open in the weeks and months ahead, but not somewhere as important as a place of worship,” Mr Jenrick said. Some faiths, he said, had already worked with colleagues of the deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, to produced detailed guidance.

The first logical step was probably to open for individual or private prayer, which would then be “a springboard, hopefully, conditional on the rate of infection, obviously, to small weddings and then, in time, to services”.

Mr Jenrick warned: “We certainly don’t want to see what we’ve seen in some countries, where large gatherings in places of worship — particularly because of the demographic in some faiths, because of singing hymns, and so on, which can lead to, sort of, exhalation — can create particular problems.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, is a member of the task force. She said, after the Prime Minister’s announcement, that larger groups could gather outside from the start of this week, and that joy at being able to meet with friends and family once more was being tempered by the vital caution contained in the latest scientific advice. There was no doubt that a second wave of the virus could be devastating for our way of life.

“Yet with shops reopening and some people appearing to be returning to a degree of normality, it is understandable that questions are being raised as to how and where the lockdown is being relaxed,” she said.

“Churchgoers are amongst those feeling real disappointment and hurt, as places of worship remain closed to the public. While we have developed detailed advice to help local churches plan to open for individual prayer as well as weddings and then, in due course, a resumption of public worship services — for now, the Government does not deem it safe for us to take these steps.”

In an open letter sent on Monday to MPs whose constituencies lie in his diocese, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, writes: “I hope that you would lobby for an urgent review of the continued closure of our church buildings to individuals who seek solace in such places [church buildings]. . . 

“At a time when tensions run high, I believe that there is a deep thirst for access to churches and cathedrals as places of prayer for people of committed faith, or for anyone who is in search of space in which to find peace.

“I am fortunate to live near to Chichester cathedral. Each day I see individuals peering in through its glass doors. I know from personal experience what pressing and intimate needs find expression in the prayers that they write down and leave behind.

“We urgently need places and experience that build hope, trust, and endurance. The capacity of the Christian Church to engender those virtues through prayer and stillness in its buildings should not be underestimated.” 

In a series of tweets after Mr Jenrick’s briefing on Sunday, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, suggested: “I think we should be arguing (a) that it is too soon to open other buildings; or (b) that our churches should be allowed to open alongside them. To suggest that our churches should remain closed while other ‘non-essential’ shops and buildings open is to condone secularism.”

The benefits of prayer were “not generally of such direct economic benefit”, but that did not mean that they didn’t matter, he observed. “The risk to a person sitting quietly to pray in a church which is properly cleaned and supervised is surely not greater than a trip to the supermarket?”

A Savanta ComRes opinion poll commissioned by the National Churches Trust and published on Sunday suggested that the public backed the early reopening of churches and chapels, provided they could maintain social distancing. Forty-six per cent of the adults polled supported reopening earlier than 4 July: a tentative date mentioned at the start of May. This figure rose to 66 per cent among respondents who attended regularly.

The four most important purposes for reopened churches and chapels were listed in the survey responses: providing a place where those who had died as a result of coronavirus could be remembered; providing space for quiet reflection and private prayer; holding occasions such as wedding, funerals, and baptisms; and providing community services.

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