BLACKBURN has been at the top of the league tables for much of the past year — sadly, not for football, but, rather, Covid. It is a challenging place to be a priest, made all the more challenging this week by an open letter from the three directors of public health for Lancashire, urging all faith communities to cease public worship.
Having listened to clergy in our diocese, it is clear that many clergy and lay leaders are feeling deeply conflicted and under huge moral pressure about whether it is right to continue public worship during the current lockdown. While many rejoice that churches have not been required to close this time (Online News, 4 January), others feel that the responsibility to make decisions about whether worship is safe in their context weighs very heavily (News, 8 January). It is particularly hard when clergy and churchwardens are not of the same mind.
One former churchwarden texted me: “I strongly agree with the medical officers’ comments. Churches must close, especially because of the age profile of a typical congregation. Churches could so easily become sources of spreading.” A priest wrote: “I’m very pleased that worship in church is not prohibited by law. However, I cannot personally bear the responsibility of deciding what to do regarding communal worship in our parish church.
”I’m called and trained to pray, preach, pastor, and preside, not trained in, nor called to, epidemiology, public health, and politics.”
WHAT, then, is the case for churches’ continuing to stay open and offer public worship during a pandemic?
The Church of England is obliged by law to offer public worship, and every parishioner has the right to attend its services and look to us in time of need, regardless of whether they are members. While services online via Zoom have been a blessing and lifeline for many, when public worship is replaced by private worship for which an access code is needed, many on the fringes of church life are excluded, at a very time when they most need the Church.
The Government’s decision to allow churches to stay open is a recognition that churches are offering a Covid-safe environment where the risk of transmission is low. Indeed, with all the proper protocols in place, I am convinced that going to church has never been as safe in 2000 years as it is now. The Bishops in Worcester diocese, in their letter to clergy, have quoted evidence from Public Health England that there have been only 47 cases of Covid-19 linked to places of worship, of which there are 30,000: that’s about four for every 100,000 acts of worship.
Christian worship is sacramental, witnessing to the God who took flesh and blood for our salvation, and involves being able to taste and see. Physicality is at the heart of our faith. As we share in the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ. This needs physical expression, and, in times of crisis, we need the assurance of the sacraments more than ever.
Christian life and service can be sustained for a limited time without gathering for public worship, but, now that we are in the third lockdown, it becomes increasingly hard to sustain spiritually those who are giving heroically in their service to those in need without some gathering together to worship God. Local authorities are grateful for all that the churches are doing to feed the hungry and care for the isolated, but this service is made possible and sustained by our common worship.
RESEARCH shows that there are significant public-health and mental-health benefits in public worship, as the leaders of all faiths set out very clearly in their letter to the Prime Minister in November (News, 6 November).
The burden of psychological and physical ill-health from isolation and loneliness during the pandemic is increasingly apparent. It is well attested that many people turn to faith communities as a way of coping with trauma and grief, and public worship provides people with an important means of access to the support of a faith community, without which they might otherwise have to turn to overstretched mental-health services.
As one archdeacon wrote this week, “We have to balance the physical medical information with the psychological impact on people and their well-being, as many who live alone see no one, talk to no one, and are incredibly lonely. Coming to a physical act of worship enables them to see a human face and be part of a group.”
While we need to make sure that church members feel that it is acceptable not to worship in person — and many will have particular reasons for making such a decision — we also need to avoid infantilising older people, who are well able to assess the risks and benefits of meeting in person to worship in a Covid-safe environment.
On a purely practical level, going to church is generally a more Covid-safe activity than going to a small corner shop or to a supermarket or a petrol station, where people are constantly passing through and surfaces are generally not wiped down between each person, and where people are not asked to sign in for Track and Trace. We need to treat those who wish to attend church as adults, able to assess risk and make their own judgements, as they will do about when and where to shop and exercise.
Churches are some of the largest enclosed public spaces in our communities, and naturally well-ventilated (another word for draughty), and many have scattered congregations who were expert at socially distancing long before the concept was invented.
Of course, some congregations will need to suspend public worship during this lockdown, and we will support them in doing so. For others, however, now is a time to keep calm, keep safe, and carry on.
The Ven. Mark Ireland is the Archdeacon of Blackburn.