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It is a service, after all

08 January 2021

THE exemption of public worship from the latest restrictions is a remarkable testament to the powers of persuasion of England’s religious leaders. Having acquiesced too readily to church clos­ures in the first lockdown last March, as the Arch­­bishop of Canter­bury has since acknowledged, they made strong repres­entations before the second lockdown. The conse­quent exemp­tion of communal worship in tiers 1 to 3 survived the intro­duction of tier 4, and now lockdown 3. Tribute should be paid to the Church’s Covid Recovery Group, who meet weekly; also to the small army of church­people whose expertise with sanitiser and signage has enabled the Church to demon­strate, through the test-and-trace data, that the chance of trans­mission in church is neg­­ligible — although there will inevitably be closures where key figures are extremely vulnerable, volunteers are lacking, or churches have regauged their risk level owing to the new strain.

Like so much else about the handling of this crisis, however, there appears to be a large element of randomness. Are Scottish religious leaders, who saw their buildings closed for worship this week, less convincing than their compatriots (for the time being) south of the border? Or is it that their churches are cosier than in England, or their congregations more susceptible? And there remains the absurdity of a building that might safely accom­­mod­ate, say, 100 in the congregation at an ordinary service, now re­­stricted to just six for a wedding, allowed only for exceptional reasons. When churchgoing is compared with other occupations, the absurdities multiply, prompting the kind of resentment that perhaps Archbishop Welby sought to avoid the first time round. Many hospitality venues, for example, believe that they have made their buildings as safe as churches. And it would be wise for churchgoers to be reticent in front of golfers, for example.

There will be a temptation to make sure that churchgoing is not seen as pleasurable — which, considering the restrictions in place, would not be hard. Nor can it be spoken of as a necessity, given the burgeoning of online worship. It is, instead, what it has always been first and foremost: a privilege. It is a privilege to be able to answer the prompting of the Holy Spirit and meet in service of the community. It would be no bad thing to ensure that the community understands what is going on. This is not a risky act of self-indulgence by needy people, but a vital work of inter­­cession, among other things, done with care, on behalf of a nation and a world under extraordinary pressure. In the past, this would have needed no ex­­planation; but per­­haps neither would it have bene­fited from the challenge of having to justify itself, under threat of having to cease if that degree of care slips.


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