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Church and cathedral closures accelerate in response to Covid dangers

11 January 2021

Online-only worship a no-brainer, says Dean

A Covid-19 sign in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was one of several church buildings across the country to close its doors to worship this week

A Covid-19 sign in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was one of several church buildings across the country to close its doors to worship this week

MANY more churches and cathedrals have closed their buildings to communal worship, in the light of the increasing Covid-19 infection rate.

Direct requests to do so have come from some local authorities. There is also widespread unease within faith communities about the government exemption that allows places of worship to remain open during national lockdown (News, 8 January).

Churches had been faced with an “impossible, unfair and unsustainable dilemma”, and critical public-health decisions had, in effect, been outsourced to local churches, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said on Monday.

One in 30 Londoners is said to have the virus, which prompted the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to ask the Prime Minister to close places of worship immediately. He declared a “major incident” in the city last week.

The chair of London Councils, Georgia Gould, has also requested voluntary closure of places of worship. In a letter to faith leaders, she acknowledged that this was “not an ask we are making lightly, given the crucial role faith plays in our community and the comfort and belonging communal worship provides at this difficult time”.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has since emphasised the seriousness of the situation in the capital and urged parishes to consider this as they made individual decisions.

St Paul’s Cathedral is one of many cathedrals across the country to have suspended public worship this week. It is open daily for private prayer until 3 p.m.

Southwark Cathedral is also closed for worship. A statement from the Chapter said: “In other lockdowns we simply did what we were told to do, in law or guidance. This is a different situation in which we can legally stay open for public worship and private prayer but in which we are being asked . . . to voluntarily close to reduce the number of occasions when people meet. This had to be a Chapter decision.”

Directors of public health in the north-west of England have also advised all faith communities to pause communal prayer and worship during the lockdown. Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, director of public health for Lancashire County Council, said: “We know that there are significant infection risks, just from people socialising before and after worship, and that many people who tested positive for Covid haven’t shown any symptoms. While we can’t require faith communities to do this, we are asking everyone to make this temporary change to protect each other.”

Eleven mosques in Pendle suspended all congregational prayers at the weekend. The new variant is increasing the seven-day infection rates by more than 250 per cent in some local-authority areas in the region.

Public worship has been suspended at Blackburn Cathedral. The Dean, the Very Revd Peter Howell-Jones, said: “This has been a difficult decision to come to, but in the interests of public health, responsible leadership, and a determination to work together to see the suppression of the Covid pandemic, I hope people understand our need to act at this moment in time.”

The suspension of services at Derby Cathedral was described as a “temporary and timely sacrifice” made to “serve the common good, keep people safe, and protect our frontline workers”, by the Dean, the Very Revd Peter Robinson.

Many churches in the diocese of Truro have decided to close, in the light of rising infection rates in Cornwall. In a letter to clergy, after the lockdown was announced, the Bishops wrote: “‘Can’ does not mean ‘must’ and while communal worship is permissible under the government’s restrictions, in some places it will not be advisable. It is for each church community to decide what to do, with support and guidance from the diocese and national church.

“Whilst we assume many churches will decide not to open, there will be different approaches across the diocese. Please be kind and understanding of those who come to different conclusions from those you make, and continue to be mutually supportive in this complex and difficult situation.”

Other cathedrals to have closed or suspended public worship this week include Peterborough, Ely, Rochester, Lincoln, Oxford, Salisbury, Isle of Man, and York Minster. Durham Cathedral has restricted in-person worship to one eucharist a day.

Government guidance for places of worship, updated on Monday, did not request closure. But, in reiterating the important part that places of worship played in providing spiritual leadership and bringing communities and generations together, it also emphasised that their communal nature made some particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.

It said: “The Government continues to work with its places-of-worship task force and faith leaders to renew and amend this guidance as necessary in line with the changing situation, and to enable the safe opening of places of worship for as broad a range of activities as possible when it is safe to do.

“It advises where possible, when visiting a place of worship, you should stay local and avoid travelling outside your local area, meaning your village or town, or part of the city. . . This is now one of the very few legal exemptions that allow larger numbers of people together. It is therefore crucial that places of worship and those attending comply with the law and the Covid19 Secure guidance.”

A further 13 documents of guidance were issued by the Church of England on Tuesday. Congregational singing has been banned outdoors as well as indoors; essential singing or chanting in church is now limited to one person “wherever possible. Exceptionally, where it is essential to the service, up to three individuals should be permitted to do so. Strict social distancing should be observed and the use of Plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers, and each other.”

The number of people who tested positive on Tuesday was 45,453, down by about 10,000 from the weekend; there have been 389,572 positive tests in the past seven days; 1243 deaths were reported (up 45 per cent). The number of people admitted to hospital in the past seven days stands at 24,914. About 2.4 million people have been vaccinated so far.

Writing for the Church Times online, the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, said that it was clear that many clergy and lay leaders were feeling deeply conflicted and under huge moral pressure about whether it was right to continue public worship during the lockdown, given the seriousness of the crisis.

One priest had written in response to the council leaders’ letter: “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.”

Archdeacon Ireland writes, however, that the decision to allow churches to stay open shows that the Government recognises that they offer “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 Revd Michael McHugh, Team Rector in the Savernake Team Ministry, with 12 rural churches, in Wiltshire, wrote on Wednesday, however, that Archdeacon Ireland’s “quotation of figures . . . based on last year’s infection is erroneous and based on the illogical assumption that we are dealing with the same virus. It has mutated. This is not a like-for-like situation, and the relevant figures will not be available until it is too late for us to regret our actions. . . A year ago, I would have agreed with him.”

The Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, tweeted on Sunday: “Could I encourage church folk to give over judging others about churches opening, or closing, for worship? It’s tough enough discerning what is right in our own communities without presuming to know what’s right for everyone else.”

Bishops have been swift to respond to their clergy. The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, told the Church Times last week: “We’re being clear that they have the option, and that we will support whatever they decide. I have written this to my clergy: ‘You’re all having to make hard decisions about worship in church, online or a mixture.’

“The College of Bishops’ Ad Clerum yesterday made it clear that we will support you in whatever decisions you take locally. It’s OK to be in church, with proper risk assessments in place, and it’s OK not to be in church because you have judged that the risks to you and your people is too great. It’s OK to do online — and it’s OK if that doesn’t work in your context.

“Talk to colleagues in the deanery and let no one judge you (and don’t judge yourself) for the decisions you come to. If there are parishioners kicking off and criticising, send them my way and I’ll deal with them. The Archdeacon and I are on the end of a phone or an email to help you.”

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, told his clergy: “Churches can continue to open for worship, but as we have said before, can does not mean must. Decisions should be taken locally and the bishops will support each decision. Permission is not obligation.

“If you continue to open, you must ensure that all conditions are met and that mingling before or after services is prevented. If your PCC decides to move worship online or use another creative medium for the time being, please notify your Bishop and Archdeacon (with the PCC’s rationale) in order that we can back you in the wake of any complaint.”

Nine out of ten churches in the diocese of Norwich have gone online, the Bishop, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, reported. The diocese was taking things “day by day, very cautiously and very carefully”. In Liverpool, Bishop Paul Bayes said: “We trust our colleagues to make good local decisions within the law for their social situations.”

Chelmsford Cathedral has been offering online-only worship since Advent 3. Its Dean, the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall said: “In the context of Lockdown 3, in a diocese which once again has the highest infection rates in the country, the immediate suspension of public worship was a complete no-brainer.”

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