AS CHURCHES in Britain look forward to a slight easing of restrictions for Easter, Christians in Europe continue to face tight restrictions, amid fluctuating Covid-19 infection rates and accompanying vaccine rollouts.
In Germany, where 5.2 million people had received their first dose by Monday, the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, extended the lockdown on 5 March, with some relaxation promised at seven-day intervals for shops and service-providers.
In a website statement, the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference reminded church members to observe government and health-authority instructions, but recalled that the 27 RC dioceses in Germany were ultimately responsible for their own safety measures, in co-operation with the 16 state governments.
Requiems were held nationwide for coronavirus victims at the end of February, and a mid-April ecumenical service of remembrance will be co-led in Berlin by the council chairman of the Evangelical Church, or EKD, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, who last week gave warning that the pandemic’s consequences were still “far from over”.
In France, a government decree restricting all religious congregations to 30 was overturned as “disproportionate” late last year by the Conseil d’État, or supreme administrative court, prompting successful constitutional appeals in neighbouring Belgium and Switzerland.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in force all over France. There are weekend curfews in some areas, and medical masks are required in schools and shops.
But religious services have continued. An Evangelical megachurch at Mulhouse, in eastern France, blamed for triggering a mass Covid outbreak in March 2020, reopened to congregations of up to 600 at the end of February.
Up to 3.8 million French citizens had received their first vaccination by Monday — the same number as in Italy, which this week reached the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-related deaths.
At least 270 clergy and ministers are known to have died from the pandemic in Italy, alongside 300 doctors, prompting calls for those in ministry to be prioritised for vaccinations. Standard safeguards remain in place for church services, including a ban on handshakes and administration of the host on the tongue, and a halving of congregation numbers.
In Spain, where several RC bishops were accused of jumping the queue for vaccinations, worship restrictions were relaxed in February by the socialist-led government of the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, to allow 25 people to attend services, although this was branded “discriminatory and excessive” by the secretary-general of the Spanish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Luis Argüello.
Singing is permitted in Spanish churches, although without service sheets or hymn books, while the RC Church has urged an increase in masses during Holy Week and the Easter Triduum to thin out crowds, as well as the avoidance of processions, and rituals such as the washing of feet.
With 70,000 deaths by the start of March, Spain’s Health Minister, Carolina Darias, has warned that tighter restrictions could be reimposed. Church leaders have rejected a proposal by academics in Madrid that the whole Easter festival could be postponed until the end of April, to allow more time for vaccinations.
In the Netherlands, lockdown restrictions were eased on 1 March, allowing schools and shops to reopen, after an overnight curfew triggered riots in some cities. Church congregations remain limited to 30, and prior booking is required, while Dutch Christians have been encouraged to bring food donations to services for church-run foodbanks.
Further north, in Finland, which was hardly touched by the coronavirus in 2020, the government of the 35-year-old Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, imposed a state of emergency on 1 March after a sharp rise in infections.
In Denmark, where there have also been anti-lockdown riots, limited outdoor services are currently permitted, although other restrictions will stay in place until 5 April.
Lenten reflections on lessons learned from the pandemic have been published by the Vienna-based Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe, a grouping of more than 100 denominations, as well as by the 114-member Conference of European Churches (CEC), based in Geneva.
The first CEC commentary for March, by a theologian representing the Orthodox Church of Greece, Stavros Yangazoglou, noted how restrictions on worship and sacramental life had posed particular “theological and ecclesiological challenges” for Orthodox churches, by preventing the “absolutely crucial and decisive” presence of lay people at religious services.
Mr Yangazoglou conceded that safety precautions, including suspension of the use of shared communion spoons, had been resisted by some Orthodox churches, causing extra deaths, despite a plea last May by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, for “uniformity as far as possible” in responding to Covid-19 regulations (News, 12 June 2020).
“Careful and proper observance of sanitary measures does not signify blind obedience to regime or governmental orders aimed at restricting constitutional rights and religious freedoms”, the theologian said.
“By obeying these measures, we actively care for the preservation of life, and express our love and respect for others by showing we are responsible carriers of health and life.”
In February, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship issued guidelines for bishops on Holy Week celebrations, calling for a return as soon as possible to the “normal experience of Christian life through the physical presence of the faithful at Mass”. It also urged “prudent decisions”, however, noting that conditions varied from country to country, sometimes making it “impossible for the faithful to gather in church”.
The Swiss-based Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe, which groups together Bishops’ Conferences and church bodies from 45 European countries, has launched a Lenten “eucharistic chain” for the 770,000 victims of Covid-19 in Europe: each country takes charge on a single day, beginning with Albania and Austria on Ash Wednesday.
In the Czech Republic, currently the worst-hit country on the Continent, a new state of emergency was declared on 27 February, with tight travel and social restrictions, and limits on church congregations to ten per cent of seating capacity.
In an interview in early March, the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Dominik Duka, attacked those, like the country’s former President, Václav Klaus, who had publicly refused to wear masks.
Weddings, funerals, and first-communion services are currently banned in Poland, which has restricted mass attendance since January to one person per 15 square metres, with strict quarantine rules and masks required on city streets.
In Hungary, where most Christian churches had remained open under a partial lockdown since November, several dioceses suspended public worship on Monday, after a sharp rise in infections forced the closure of schools and shops until after Easter.
Religious restrictions are being bitterly resisted by church leaders in Slovakia, where a ban on all public services has been in force since January, and most places of worship have been locked under order.
In an open letter in early March, a former foreign minister and European Commissioner, Ján Figel, appealed against the ban to the European Court of Human Rights, accusing the centre-left government of the Prime Minister, Igor Matovic, of violating the constitution and human rights with the harshest restrictions in Europe. Several Slovak government ministers have urged the reopening of churches for Easter.
A spokesman for the diocese in Europe said that Anglicans were “eagerly looking forward” to the reopening of their churches, and hoped that this would still be possible for Easter. The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, had personally licensed a new Anglican chaplain last weekend, in Belgium, where further ordination services were planned this year.
“Any decisions taken across the diocese in Europe will follow paramount national regulations on public safety, protection, and the well-being of all,” the spokesman said. “Our guidance issued in January remains in place: where public church services are permitted by local law or state guidance, these can be celebrated in church buildings or the open air. However, our advice is that services should only be held if principles of hygiene and physical distancing can be firmly adhered to.
“Within these tight constraints and travel restrictions, we have been able to continue with worship in the diocese, alongside comprehensive online coverage in our chaplaincies.”