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Welby: Go to church for Christmas, unless guidance changes

15 December 2021

Worship of God is a necessity, says Archbishop

Jason Bryant

The Revd Michele Kitto lighting the Advent wreath this week in St John’s, Glastonbury  

The Revd Michele Kitto lighting the Advent wreath this week in St John’s, Glastonbury  

PEOPLE should attend church this Christmas, despite the tightening of restrictions in response to the threat of the omicron Covid variant, the Archbishop of Canterbury said this week.

Archbishop Welby was interviewed on Times Radio on Monday, the day before MPs approved the Government’s so-called “Plan B” for England: compulsory mask-wearing in most indoor public places, mandatory vaccination for front-line NHS staff, and the requirement to produce NHS Covid passes showing full vaccination or a recent negative test to enter some large venues.

Some Conservative MPs voted against the measures, the largest rebellion being on Covid passes, for which 98 voted against. It was passed by a majority of 242, however, owing to the support of Labour MPs. The new measures came into force on Wednesday.

Asked on Times Radio whether, in light of the spread of omicron, people should attend church this Christmas, Archbishop Welby replied: “Yes . . . unless the guidance changes. And I would encourage people, there’s still just time to get vaccinated; wear masks, especially wear masks. . . I would say it’s a necessity; the worship of God is a necessity.”

 Asked whether Christmas church attendance risked increasing infections, the Archbishop responded: “Funnily enough, the churches have shown very, very, very little sign of being infection-spreaders. There are lots of reasons for that — certainly, the Anglican churches tend to be large, cold, and draughty; they’re not great places for spreading infections. And people are very careful and spread out. . . Go and worship God, listen to story of the birth of Jesus, reflect on what it says about our own obligations of love to others, and follow our consciences.”

The Archbishop also said in the interview that people had a moral duty to be vaccinated. “It’s about loving your neighbour,” he said, quoting the second of Christ’s commandment. “Jesus said, in these two commandments, you fulfil all the law and the prophets. Or, to quote someone not quite as authoritative, but pretty authoritative, the Queen: when she was asked, she said, ‘It’s not about me: it’s about our community life.’ So get vaccinated. I’ve had both vaccinations and a booster.”

On Sunday evening, the Prime Minister announced that every adult in England who had received their second vaccine at least three months ago would be eligible receive a booster vaccine before the end of the year.

“No one should be in any doubt: there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming, and I’m afraid it is now clear that two doses of vaccine are simply not enough to give the level of protection we all need,” Mr Johnson said. “But the good news is that our scientists are confident that with a third dose — a booster dose — we can all bring our level of protection back up.”

AlamyThe Commons vote on the latest Covid measures is announced on Tuesday nightIn an interview for the BBC’s Newscast podcast, posted on Thursday night, Archbishop Welby was asked again about whether people should attend church at Christmas. He said that he agreed with the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, who said on Wednesday that people should prioritise social activities that mattered most to them.

“Go along to church, wear a mask, having been vaccinated, get your booster if you can,” Archbishop Welby said. “I would say  you wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say this that going to church is a priority. And be with the people you love and care for most and be sensible with it.”

Pressed on whether public worship risked spreading infection, particularly among the elderly, he replied: “As I say, over the last 18 months we have almost no examples of centres of worship as breeding infection. People are immensely careful. Apart from anything else, most Anglican churches, to be honest, are large, cold, and draughty.”

Asked whether carol services should not take place, given that omicron was more transmissible, the Archbishop responded: “I think, if that was the case, we’d have heard that already from the Government. As I say, we’re looked at as being a very safe place.”

He continued: “There’s mental health as well as physical health. We’ve found over the last 18 months, as people have come together in worship suitably separated, sitting no closer than they need to be, with limits on how many people come in and fill the place up as that has happened, so it has given people joy and hope and faith, and confidence to care for those around them.”

The Archbishop was asked how he felt about a picture of a former Conservative London mayoral candidate, Sean Bailey, with campaign aides, at a Christmas party in Conservative HQ in December last year, less than a mile from St Thomas’ Hospital, where the Archbishop was ministering to dying people as a volunteer chaplain.

“On a human level . . . just disappointed really,” he said. “I make so many mistakes myself, I’m not a big one for throwing stones. . . I don’t really do much on judging people, but we must obey the rules. We have to depersonalise it, let’s get away from that example. And I’d say obey the rules, stick to the rules.”

Archbishop Welby said, however, that Mr Bailey’s decision to step down from a post on the London Assembly was “an honourable and proper way of doing it”.

Asked whether there needed to be more honesty at the top of public life, the Archbishop replied: “That is clearly essential, and isn’t it wonderful that we have such an extraordinary example at the top, of the Queen with her complete integrity in every possible way.”

Pressed on whether the Prime Minister should be more honest, Archbishop Welby replied: “I’m not going to answer that question. I do wear this funny bit of plastic, and one of the rules for it is that you talk to people before you talk about people. . . In this extraordinary job, which I’m very privileged to have, I get to see all these people from time to time, and it’s a pastoral thing, and I’m not going to say what I say in pastoral conversations. That’s my job.”

Asked whether, given the spread of omicron, he was hopeful for 2022, the Archbishop replied: “I’m always hopeful. At Christmas, there is an extraordinary paradox. We look back to a story set at a time when the world was a lot worse than this, and God’s answer was to join that world as a baby, the most vulnerable and helpless of all human beings.

“And, 2000 years later, 2.4 billion people will celebrate that baby’s birth, and people in the most atrocious places. A lot of my time is spent with the Anglican Communion round the world, which is normally in places of poverty and suffering. I was talking to the Archbishop of South Sudan the other day who said casually in passing: ‘Well, half the country is under water at the moment, so that’s limiting the impact of the civil war.’ Just think of that sentence, what that implies for suffering.

“So how can I not have hope that that baby brings us eternal life, a future, hope, purpose, the light of the world in the deepest darkness. I’m full of hope.”

Speaking in the House of Lords on Tuesday, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, drew attention to vaccine hesitancy, particularly in minority-ethnic communities.

“The problem is that there is the danger of a subtle form of racial discrimination via the back door,” he said. “Ethnic minorities comprise a much higher percentage of healthcare staff compared with the overall population. We know that they are more likely to be religious than the white British majority, and vaccine hesitancy is much higher among these communities. . .

“A worrying confluence of factors could leave those historically discriminated against being forced to choose between violating deeply held principles and unemployment. No one, whether white or from an ethnic-minority background, should be forced into that corner.”

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced on Tuesday that all 11 countries would be removed from England’s red list at 4 a.m. on Wednesday. The red list had been introduced in late November to stem the spread of the omicron variant, and Nigeria was added to the list last week.

Archbishop Welby joined the Nigerian High Commissioner, Sarafa Tunji Isola, last week in speaking of the UK’s “travel apartheid”, and called for all countries to be removed from the red list (News, 10 December).

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Javid said: “Now that there is community transmission of omicron in the UK and omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad.”

The publication of the new regulations last week confirmed that communal worship are exempt from the requirement to ask for Covid passes. Weddings and funerals are also exempt.

Mask-wearing in church, however, has become mandatory until further notice, unless an individual falls into an exempt category, such as a child under 11 or someone with a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability.

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