THE imposition of ashes will be permitted during Ash Wednesday services next month, with precautions, for Church of England churches that are open for public worship during the current lockdown, new guidance states.
While government guidance permits places of worship in England to remain open under the current restrictions, many churches have chosen to close anyway to mitigate the risk of coronavirus infection. Churches may choose to reopen for Lent services, by which time the lockdown will have been reviewed by the Government.
In normal times, to mark the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, the priest would mark a cross on the forehead of each recipient and recite the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
New C of E guidance for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, published on Tuesday, however, states that priests should sanitise their hands immediately before the imposition of ashes begins, stand at “arm’s length” from the recipient, and “sprinkle” the ashes on each recipient’s head “without touching them or speaking any words”. The use of oil may, therefore, be unnecessary.
“If the minister accidentally touches the recipient, they must sanitize hands again. The temptation should be resisted to use a single-use implement to apply ash to the forehead. If ash is being produced locally, this should be done in a hygienic manner.”
The practice is recommended only in a church or churchyard, but worshippers are invited to impose ashes on one another at home. “Ministers may wish to encourage the imposition of ash within households, especially if public worship is not taking place. Instructions for making ash (whether from palm crosses or something else) can be shared with congregations.”
Under government jurisdiction, however, no small groups may meet in public buildings or private homes (including vicarages) unless they are support groups. Recitals of poetry and music are also banned for this reason. The Passion narrative, however, may be said or sung by up to three people during worship, the C of E says, though government guidance states that any singing “should be limited to one person wherever possible”.
Many other Easter traditions are also permitted in the church guidance. This includes Stations of the Cross in a church building, though people are advised not to gather around one Station, remaining socially distanced. Sharing pictures of the Stations online or in a handout is recommended.
Palm crosses can be distributed hygienically — “in sandwich bags or envelopes” — if they are made locally, the guidance says, and people are encouraged to make their own to display in their windows. Touching or kissing of the cross in church is not permitted.
The watch — silent prayer from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday — is permitted under the rules of private prayer in places of worship, as is the three-hour devotion. The Paschal candle can be carried, fires lit, and flowers arranged for services as long as social distancing is maintained.
The Chrism eucharist with the distribution of oils is also permitted as long as government guidance is followed. “Bishops and cathedrals may wish to find alternative means of renewing commitments and distributing oils, in addition to a service or other gathering online. If oils are distributed, they should be hygienically bottled in advance and handled a minimum number of times.”
Outdoor services or walks of witness except for within churchyards are no longer permitted, and processions within church are not recommended. The Maundy Thursday tradition of foot-washing is also not permitted. Prostration before the altar is permitted provided surfaces are cleaned before and afterwards.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church’s Recovery Group, said: “This remains a very difficult time with numbers of cases of Covid-19 and deaths of those with the disease remaining very high.
“This guidance is to help churches plan locally in the knowledge that many churches have suspended public worship in buildings at this time while offering worship, comfort and spiritual support in other ways. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we do so in the sure Easter hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we prepare to walk with him my prayer is that all will find the strength to continue to support and care for one another.”
The Vatican has also issued guidance for the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent. A note from the Congregation for Divine Worship last week advised that ashes, once blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the priest, could be sprinkled on each person in silence. Before this, the formula found in the Roman Missal — “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — should be announced to all those present.