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Dioceses may let clergy into their churches again, Bishops decide

05 May 2020

Pattern of infection allows House of Bishops to adjust Covid-19 guidance

PA

A ‘church open’ sign outside Holy Trinity, Guildford, before the coronavirus lockdown was introduced. The government ban on church services continues

A ‘church open’ sign outside Holy Trinity, Guildford, before the coronavirus lockdown was introduced. The government ban on church services continues

THE House of Bishops decided on Tuesday that the guidance banning clergy from entering their churches may be modified by individual dioceses.

On Tuesday evening, each diocesan bishop received a note advising him or her to consult within the diocese about whether it would be safe to allow clergy to return to church for private prayer and to live-stream worship. It is expected that different policies will be pursued around the country, depending on the prevalence of the coronavirus in each region.

The guidance that churches “must” close completely was given on 23 March in response to the coronavirus outbreak (News, 24 March). It has been reviewed “on an ongoing basis”, a church spokeswoman said on Monday, as the Bishops acted “within government advice and in line with best public-health practice”. The policy has attracted continued protests, including in a letter to The Times on Monday, signed by more than 600 clergy and laity.

The House of Bishops, meeting via Zoom on Tuesday, concluded that the trajectory of infection encouraged them to modify their guidance. The drop in confirmed Covid-19 deaths in the UK — 288 deaths were reported on Monday — seems to indicate a sustained pattern.

There is still evidence of coronavirus hotspots, however, and these are expected to influence what individual bishops advise their diocesan clergy.

There is still no question of lifting the suspension of public services any time soon, as was seen in Germany last weekend. The government ban on large gatherings is still in force. But the Government never ordered the closure of churches, and many clergy have argued that they could live-stream from within their church without putting anyone at risk.

In a week in which employers were encouraged to consider modifying workplaces to allow a safe return to work — implementing social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) — the church spokeswoman talked of “a number of groups exploring current and future implications of Covid-19 for the Church and wider society”. The opening of churches for private prayer, supervised to ensure that no one’s safety was compromised, would be a halfway house on the way to some limited form of public attendance at a service.

There was no deadline in mind, the spokeswoman said; public safety remained the Bishops’ priority. “The main condition that needs to be met is that the Archbishops and Bishops must be satisfied that opening church buildings will not increase the risk of transmission of Covid-19 across the population, but especially to the most vulnerable.”

Church advisers are still puzzling out how to ensure that churches can be made safe after people have been in them. It is for this reason that there appears to be no movement on the return of funeral services to churches.

Speaking about the criticisms that have been voiced of the Bishops blanket guidance, the spokeswoman said on Monday: “The vast majority of clergy have been supportive of the advice that the Archbishops and Bishops have given.”

Speaking after the House of Bishops meeting, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chaired the discussion, said: “We are hugely grateful for all that our churches and clergy have been doing to support the Government’s message to stay at home, to support the NHS, and to save lives.

“While it is clear there will be no imminent return to normality, the emphasis is now turning towards how and when aspects of social distancing can be eased, although we remain mindful of the potential risks of a second wave of the virus.

“Nevertheless, it now makes sense for us to start to look ahead to the potential easing of restrictions so that our clergy and churches can be prepared.”

On Wednesday evening, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said that it was still too early lift the suspension on religious services. “We are in conversation with faith leaders across the country to consider how, when the time is right, they will be able to recommence services in churches and mosques and synagogues across the country. But that moment is not now.”

In Germany, the first churches reopened this week with government approval, but with stringent precautions, including a restriction in numbers, the wearing of face masks, and a ban on singing.
 

 

Read the full press statement from Church House:

The House of Bishops met via Zoom this afternoon, as it has done regularly throughout the current pandemic, and continued to review advice to clergy on the Church’s efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, to protect the vulnerable and health services.

In a discussion led by the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, who chairs a group examining how the Church of England might proceed once the current restrictions for Covid-19 are relaxed or lifted, the House of Bishops recognised that there have been some welcome signs of improvement in the current situation, including a reduction in new cases and hospital admissions giving evidence for hope.

While church buildings remain closed for public worship, in line with Government advice, the Bishops agreed in principle to a phased approach to lifting restrictions, in time and in parallel with the Government’s approach, with three broad stages as infection levels improve:
 

  1. An initial immediate phase allowing very limited access to church buildings for activities such as streaming of services or private prayer by clergy in their own parishes, so long as the necessary hygiene and social distancing precautions are taken

  2. Subsequently access for some rites and ceremonies when allowed by law, observing appropriate physical distancing and hygiene precautions

  3. Worship services with limited congregations meeting, when Government restrictions are eased to allow this

The Bishops agreed that the decision on the timing of when to implement the revised advice on ministers or worship leaders praying and streaming from their church buildings should be made by individual Diocesan Bishops, depending on their local situation.

The Bishops were clear once again that this is guidance — not an instruction or law – and that it will be constantly reviewed depending on the national situation.

National Church of England guidance will be updated in the coming days with further advice on how the staged process could be implemented and with factors and information for dioceses to consider.

Bishop Sarah said: “We are hugely grateful for all that our churches and clergy have been doing to support the Government’s message to stay at home, to support the NHS, and to save lives.

“While it is clear there will be no imminent return to normality, the emphasis is now turning towards how and when aspects of social distancing can be eased, although we remain mindful of the potential risks of a second wave of the virus.

“Nevertheless, it now makes sense for us to start to look ahead to the potential easing of restrictions so that our clergy and churches can be prepared.”

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