ALL churches are, once again, to be shut, and all public worship suspended in England by government order, as part of its latest “lockdown”.
The manner of announcing this adds to the rightful shock and dismay that it will cause, as the Prime Minister did not even feel it a point worth troubling to mention when announcing the overall conditions of the lockdown from Downing Street.
The news was merely slipped out later on the Government’s website, which stated flatly: “Places of Worship will be closed, unless they are being used for: Funerals, To broadcast acts of worship, Individual prayer, Formal childcare or where part of a school, Essential voluntary and public services, such as blood donation or food banks.”
This was significant on several levels. First, it reflects the astonishing situation that closing down access to all services in the Christian churches of the nation — including the Church of England as the Established Church (as well as meeting-places all other faith communities) — was felt to be so trifling a matter as to merit no attention at all from the Prime Minister himself.
This would seem to mark a step down even lower than the status given in the first lockdown, when the Government decided to categorise the churches as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector, presumably on the basis that theatres are large places with a lot of seating, and so are most churches — so why not treat them the same way?
Remarkably, given that the Church of England is, indeed, still the legally Established Church of the realm, and thus supposedly closely connected to the State, little immediate consultation was undertaken, or advance warning given of this new closure edict. This left even the Bishop of London — the world’s single largest Anglican diocese — able to say initially after the Prime Minister’s statement only that: “We will study the detailed regulations when they are published and seek clarification on how this may affect public worship.”
So much for the close relationship that the Archbishops and bishops are wont to suggest that they have with the corridors of power; which, it seems, they may still adorn in the House of Lords, but clearly did not influence in this case.
It was deeply shocking to many Christians — most especially those who were ill, otherwise alone, the bereaved, and the dying — that all churches were closed during the first lockdown. And it was even more mortifying to learn later that the bishops had been offered some level of exemption, but reportedly decided on their own initiative to go further than was originally requested by the Government and insist that the churches be totally locked — and, for a time, barred, even to their own clergy.
At least, this time, it is apparently permitted for churches to be open, at times, to individuals for private prayer, but actual services can be conductedonly behind closed doors for live streaming. And, while the bishops have spoken out publicly against all this, the brutal fact remains that public ministry and worship of the Church is to be stopped entirely.
THIS needs to be recognised for the very shocking thing that it is. It means nothing less than that the full sacramental ministry of the Church is apparently something to be considered an optional extra which we can all do without in times of crisis.
This is surely the exact opposite of the truth, and is an affront to the unremitting commitment to witness, ministry, and service that the Church has maintained — often at terrible cost, and through all manner of calamity — over the course of two millennia.
Even if it is granted that, at the time of the first lockdown, there was sufficient evidence to warrant extreme caution to the point of closure (which is itself debatable), subsequent experience, and the elaborate precautions in place in all churches, have to mean that such concerns do not warrant an end to public worship now.
There seems to have been no known case reported of virus transfer happening in a service in a church that has observed the appropriate precautions. Then again, if, indeed, socially distanced proximity alone is sufficient to cause virus transfer, then there is no basis for singling out churches in particular for closure. After all, not only will grocery stores remain open, but so, too, will off-licences; and these will be joined this time by schools and universities, which will also remain open.
Accordingly, there is no reasonable justification for the current action, which specifically prevents access to the means of grace which the ministry of churches provide and which Christians consider essential to the full practice of their faith.
AT A time when rights are so much spoken of, it is curious that they can be so readily set aside in respect of access to the fullness of Christian ministry and worship.
Altogether, this situation poses serious questions for the Churches, in so far as they either do, or do not, take seriously the sacramental ministry and the command of Our Lord himself: “Do ye this in remembrance of me.”
Was that injunction real or merely virtual ?
Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Priest Assisting at St George’s, Hanover Square, in London.