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It is unsafe to keep our churches open, clergy say

06 January 2021


Solitary: a woman walks past York Minster, on Tuesday, after the Prime Minister ordered a new national lockdown for England, which means that people will be able to leave their homes for only limited reasons; measures are expected to stay in place until mid-February

Solitary: a woman walks past York Minster, on Tuesday, after the Prime Minister ordered a new national lockdown for England, which means that pe...

THE Government’s exemption of public worship in the new lockdown, which started on Wednesday, is meeting resistance from clergy in areas where the number of coronavirus infections is highest.

At least one diocese, Chelmsford, has recommended that all services go online only.

On Monday night, the Prime Minister announced a third lockdown in response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, hospital admissions, and deaths. The new restrictions, which might last until March, state that no one can leave their homes except under special circumstances, which include work that cannot be done domestically, exercise, legal matters, and childcare. As before, the vulnerable are advised to shield at home.

In contrast with the first lockdown, however, new guidance published shortly after the announcement states that public worship is exempt from the new rules: “You can leave home to attend or visit a place of worship for communal worship, a funeral or event related to a death, a burial ground or a remembrance garden, or to attend a wedding ceremony.”

Weddings can be held, but only in exceptional circumstances (such as imminent death) and with up to six people. (The figure does not include those conducting the wedding.) The limit on funerals remains at 30; the number permitted at a wake is no more than six. As before, face coverings are mandatory in all indoor settings, including places of worship.

Shortly after Boris Johnson’s announcement, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid-19 recovery group, stated: “Some may feel that it is currently better not to attend in person, and there will be parishes which decide to offer only digital services for the time being. Clergy who have concerns, or others who are shielding, should take particular care and stay at home.”

The Vicar of St John’s, Hampstead, in north London, Canon Jeremy Fletcher, tested positive for Covid-19 after a Christmas-morning service, together with a colleague and a visiting cleric. “We had to be entirely online last Sunday as we were isolating, and have decided to be online only through January,“ he said on Wednesday.

“Rates here are one in 30, and we don’t want to encourage non-essential gatherings. Online is feasible for the majority here, and those who choose not to join have been happy to be remote. People on the other side of the digital divide are in contact in other ways, and there had been no overwhelming pressure to be open, though it was clearly appreciated when we were.”

PAA postbox in NHS colours outside St Thomas’ Hospital, near Lambeth Palace, in London

St John’s is considering whether the church building should remain open for private prayer, as it has been for two hours each day. “I wish the Government had shut places of worship for gatherings of more than for private prayer. It would seem that even the most rigorous risk assessment is powerless in the face of the new variant, and human behaviour,” Canon Fletcher said.

The Vicar of St James’s, Malden, in south London, the Revd Katie Thomas, was unequivocal, telling the Daily Mail: “Those who stay open at the climax of a pandemic — without any evidence on safety requirements for the new strain — are putting their parishioners, their cleaner, public-transport employees, and the NHS at risk.”

Some churches in currently high-risk areas are opting for a combination of public worship and online services. The Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, in south London, Canon Simon Butler, said that his church had not wanted to close public worship fully, but that the seriousness of the situation had led the churchwardens, clergy, and employed staff to take urgent steps.

They are trialling more weekday services with smaller congregations to maximise social distancing, and using colour-coding to indicate which services can be attended in person. Canon Butler said that this was a halfway house in a time that could almost be viewed as a retreat. “It’s a balance between those in the community genuinely fearful of the pandemic and those — like businesspeople with heavy responsibilities during the week — for whom coming on Sunday is sustaining.”

There are reports of local authorities uneasy at churches’ freedom to open. The Vicar of Harrow Weald, the Revd Jody Stowell, said on Wednesday: “I am very happy to see that Harrow Council are asking places of worship to only use their buildings for exceptional circumstances like funerals.

“I understand why the national Church of England is struggling with this. However, simply making it a local decision has meant that a number of clergy feel forced into continuing in building worship when they don’t feel it is safe.”

Among the dioceses, Chelmsford is so far the only one to advise its churches to hold online services only. Cathedrals are also showing caution: no public worship is currently taking place at Salisbury; and, while Ely has some small weekday services in the Presbytery, services on Sunday will be live-streamed only.

PAIlluminated sign on Bournemouth Pier tells people to comply with the Government’s ruling to stay at home

“The decision has been made for the wellbeing of all concerned, including congregation, volunteers and cathedral staff. We hope to resume public worship on Sundays as soon as we are satisfied it is safe to do so,” a notice at Ely reads.

New advice from the C of E, issued on Wednesday, sets out the legal position for setting aside the legal requirement that morning prayer, evening prayer, and a celebration of the eucharist are held in at least one church in each benefice on all Sundays and on certain feast days and holy days.

The incumbent and the PCC, acting together, can choose to close completely for a specified period. If they wish to close for an indefinite period, they have to approach the bishop together for permission. Funerals in church can be refused, and although couples have a legal right to be married in their parish church, this is governed by the new regulations on exceptional circumstances only. The C of E guidance suggests deferment or finding another minister.

In a pastoral letter to Canterbury diocese this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, reiterated that “while churches may remain open for public worship and prayer, you are not required to do so where you feel that would be unsafe or unwise.

“We know that you will have been considering these issues for quite some time please ensure that the wellbeing and protection of ministers and church officers continues to be taken into consideration during this time. We are aware that this is a time of enormous stress and strain, so please reflect prayerfully, take time over your decisions and listen carefully to one another.”

These conditions exist only in England. The Scottish Parliament decided this week to close all places of worship. Northern Ireland entered a six-week lockdown on 26 December, and plans to put its stay-at-home message into law. Places of worship remain open for general worship (numbers depend on individual risk assessments; meetings for anything other than worship fall under the 15-person limit), funerals and weddings (both up to 25 people), and private prayer.

Wales has also been in a national lockdown since 20 December, under which places of worship may open for general worship, funerals, weddings, baptisms, and private prayer. Limits on numbers are determined by the capacity of the building. 

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