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Angela Tilby: Has C of E learnt from lockdown?

17 March 2023

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ON 24 March 2020, clergy in the Church of England were told that they must not enter their churches, a day after the Prime Minister named places of worship as among the buildings that must close in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (News, 27 March 2020). The only grounds on which churches could remain open was for providing vital services, such as foodbanks.

We now know that the closure of churches to their clergy and for private prayer was not mandated directly by government. Our church leaders made the decision themselves, probably in sheer and understandable terror that, if there were an outbreak of Covid linked to a church, the C of E would be blamed.

Many clerics stepped up to the crisis magnificently. They learnt, often from scratch, how to do worship by phone and online; they carried on pastoral ministry by phone; they managed desolate funerals. And they suffered a good deal, with stress, isolation, and anxiety over those whom they were committed to serving.

The draconian closure of churches to clergy was the wrong decision, not only because it was uncanonical, but because it revealed something depressing about the mind of the C of E’s leadership. Yes, the fear was real, and the risk; but, even in times of disaster, church buildings have always been a sign of visible solidarity with the sick and the dying.

Many priests, barred from going into their own churches to pray, felt that something profoundly wrong was being asked of them, and a few quietly disobeyed, perhaps giving hope to any who saw them. Just over a year after the first lockdown, a report from the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York suggested the shocking finding that “75 per cent of non-church members wanted access to churches as places of quiet reflection and comfort”.

I still cannot get out of my mind the memory of a desperate man hammering on the closed doors of our cathedral in Portsmouth shortly after the announcement of church closures. In the decision announced on 24 March 2020, some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community lost their place of sanctuary.

The fact that foodbanks remained open shows that the Church was happy to do things for the poor during the pandemic, but not to let them seek God for themselves. No amount of outreach and missionary restructuring can make up for that betrayal.

Of course, it would be lovely if our churches were filled with bright and breezy young people, full of faith in Jesus. But the reality is that the Church is often discerned among the needy, the grieving, and the helpless. They were the ones who were shut out, their spiritual needs disregarded, while the ninety-and-nine at least had some provision through online worship. Three years on, I wonder what the Church of England has learnt from this, and whether it really wants to be the Church of England in any meaningful sense.

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