Churches must open for private prayer

It was widely expected that the Government’s easing of lockdown restrictions on 28th May would include the opening of churches and other places of worship for private prayer from 1st June. One diocesan bishop even issued an Ascension Day Ad Clerum indicating that churches would be open from 1st June, while also providing some sensible advice about how to make churches safe for individual visits for prayer.

It therefore came as quite a surprise (even, I am led to believe, to bishops and civil servants) that this was not announced on 28th May as expected, and it remains unclear why. It may have been because the ‘R number’ had slightly increased and this was worrying some scientists. It may also have been because most of the other easing measures were about activities outside, and allowing people to go inside a building seemed out of place – albeit exception was made for some indoor sporting events. I do not wish to criticise unfairly and it would be helpful if the reasons could be made public so that they might be understood.

Nevertheless, at the same time, the Government did announce that, assuming virus transmission continues to reduce in England, a wider range of shops will be open from 15th June. No mention was made of opening churches and other places of worship for private prayer, and although not mentioning them doesn’t mean they won’t be allowed to open on that date, the prioritising of retail over places of worship in public statements is, at the least, revealing of our Government’s priorities and what it believes to be our priorities as a nation.

It is important to state clearly that I am not arguing that churches should open before it is reasonably safe for them to do so. The word ‘reasonably’ is important here. It is clear from the nature of this pandemic that the virus is likely to be with us for some time yet, and therefore some level of risk is inevitable: the key factor is what is reasonable. If it is safe to buy clothes in a department store, then there is unlikely to be any good medical or scientific reason why a church shouldn’t be open either, assuming sensible and proportionate measures are put in place. We must be cautious, but not overstate the difficulties involved, and base advice on good scientific evidence.

Even then, it may be that some parishes are unable to undertake such measures for various reasons (e.g. a majority of vulnerable or elderly volunteers) and therefore churches in some places might need to remain closed longer than others. This would follow exactly the same principle as is now established for clergy entering church to record and broadcast worship: there is no compulsion for any clergyperson to do so, but those who can do so safely are permitted. In the same way, the fact that some churches might not yet be able to open does not mean that all churches should remain closed.

The opening of churches wherever possible is founded on a belief that they are essential to the moral and social fabric of our society. For that reason they should be amongst the first public places to open and, perhaps, even before other facilities and services such as non-essential shops and gyms. This would act as a sign of the values of our society, indicating that consumerism and financial concerns aren’t more important than the spiritual, emotional and psychological wellbeing of the population. A secular-minded person might say that a shop is relevant to everyone but places of worship are relevant to only some, but this fails to recognise the central importance of places of worship in most communities and the symbolic significance of such buildings for the life of our nation. While the proportion of the total population who attend a particular church in any given parish might be relatively small, it is more than likely that most people would like to see their local church open before their local Starbucks. It is a question about the very character of our culture and the nature of our nation, and what is considered to be essential, particularly at a time of crisis. 

In relation to this matter, the people of England have been let down by the Church of England’s prevailing language and ideology which has, from the start of the pandemic, downplayed the meaning and significance of our church buildings as hallowed places of prayer and sacramental encounter with Christ. The oft-repeated mantra that the ‘church is not the building but the people’ is superficially true, but like most clichés also largely false, as has been explored elsewhere by others. The problem in the current situation is that this has undermined attempts by our bishops to influence the Government to open our churches sooner rather than later. It is true that we cannot know what discussions have taken place between bishops and ministers behind closed doors, but it is clear that the bishops have failed to secure both the opening of churches for private prayer by 1st June, and the formal public indication that such an opening may be anticipated by 15th June. 

By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church has made much stronger public arguments and appeals throughout the crisis for church buildings to be reopened as soon as it is safe to do so and no later because individual prayer in the House of God is an intrinsic part of Christian spiritual life. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, is to be commended for his strongly-worded letter (dated 27th May 2020) to the Prime Minister, in which he reminds Boris Johnson that churches are integral to wellbeing and must be considered essential, as he gives voice to a ‘growing sense of dissatisfaction’ at continued church closure. Likewise, Cardinal Vincent Nichols in his Pentecost homily speaks of the ‘vital contribution to our common good’ fostered by open churches.

This final point is important. As we recover from the pandemic, we have a significant opportunity to express and define what our society is about and to ensure that it cares for the wellbeing of all people. In this, we must remember that the Church can make a unique contribution: it is one of the country’s largest sources of volunteer workers, which not only reaches into many deprived communities, but also has proven health benefits for participants. 

I find myself wondering why the Church of England has been so reticent – to the point of silence – about the matter. Some bishops are beginning to express their desire to see churches reopen, but we need an approach that is both robust and constructive. We are yet to see much beyond a few tweets from bishops’ personal social media accounts, when arguably what is called for now is action that is more coordinated, convincing, and in the public domain – especially as those discussions behind closed doors seem thus far to have failed. It may be that some bishops fear churches could become the epicentre of an outbreak, which is partly understandable but almost certainly overdone. One needs only to take a look at the hundreds of people closely gathering around pubs selling take-away beer in the sunshine to see that churches are not going to be the main factor behind any increase in infection at either a local or a national level.

It’s true that not all Anglican churches are regularly open to the public, but a great many, perhaps the majority, are open for some or all of the day, and are therefore an integral feature of the spiritual lives of local people – not just for Anglicans but for everyone, as demonstrated by the very large number of people who visit and use church buildings for quiet and reflection who do not self-define as Christians. At a time when people are lonely, bereaved, fearful and anxious, the ability to experience what the poet R. S. Thomas called ‘moments of great calm/kneeling before an altar’ are more important than ever. As much as we might repeat the line ‘the church building is closed but the church is active’, the symbol of the locked doors and the closed gates sends an extraordinarily negative message to everyone, and we must surely allow it to persist only for the shortest possible period of time.

In all this, I am reminded of the famously ironic photograph of a church entrance, obviously locked and bolted, but inscribed with the words ‘This is the House of God and Gate of Heaven’. This alerts us to the fact that this is not an issue that is primarily about buildings, but about a proclamation of the Gospel of salvation which takes the spiritual lives of ordinary people seriously. While it is anachronistic to speak in any real way of England as being a ‘Christian nation’, churches still speak to the majority of people about who we are, our values and our priorities, much more than a department store or a café or a pub – as important as these places may also be. It would be a travesty of our self-understanding as a nation if the secular right to shop was exalted above the spiritual right of people to offer prayer within a place of worship. 

It is hard to know what the future will bring and how the experience of pandemic will affect us. It is sometimes the case that national traumas and disasters can result in a new spiritual sense among the general population. It may be that the Church will see a definite increase in people wishing engage with the Christian faith after this period of lockdown, which has enabled many people to spend time in serious reflection about their own lives and the things that really matter. How can we commend our faith to the nation if we have so obviously allowed the subjugation of the spiritual to the secular at a time when the nation needs a sense of purpose and meaning more than ever?

It has been necessary for church buildings to close for a time, but this measure should be recognised for what it is – an extreme measure to be used only for the very shortest possible period of time. With the Government delaying the opening of churches, we need bishops to advocate publicly, and for clergy and laity to support them in pressing for the reopening of churches for private prayer. This needs to take place at the same time as, and even before, non-essential shops and services, as a sign that the things of God are indeed essential, of supreme importance and lasting value. 

‘We love the place, O God,
Wherein thine honour dwells;
The joy of thine abode
All earthly joy excels.’

The Rev’d Stephen Stavrou

7 thoughts on “Churches must open for private prayer

  1. I used to live and serve in your parish. I deeply sympathise with your wish to fling open the doors. But please, when you do reopen, spare a time in your daily prayers for the many clergy and many, many congregations who make up the crowd of people who can’t. You have one, beautiful Victorian church. I have four, all listed, all older than St. Michael’s. So which do I choose to reopen? You presumably continue to take funerals at Mortlake or Richmond. I bury in one of eight churchyards with families who go back generations. Our ministries are very different. But does that make the pain of separation any less for my congregation? Does it make the longing to ‘get back to business as usual’ any different? I understand your views, really I do. But they are so easy to share in your circumstances. I have a congregation the youngest of whom is 70. Every church officer is mid 70s. My parish organist, who plays in 4 villages, is 89. My choir are between them several centuries old. And they all want to get back to normal. But we can’t. Because sitting in a church for an hour is not the same as popping into a department store. Because our churches have 100s of people who ‘pop in’ for quiet prayer during the course of the summer when our doors are always unlocked, and we have no running water, and no way to manage hygiene unless the curate and I take up post inside-on rotation. You may well say ‘well just open one church then’. OK, let’s do that. Let’s just single out one church above the others because- well why exactly? If our churches need to be open so we can be church then surely we can’t choose one building over all the others. Perhaps St. Mary’s and Holy Trinity will be kept closed while you open St. Michael’s alone, in which case you will know how people are feeling about that idea. But somehow I doubt that will be the case. I mean it most sincerely when I say, please pray for us who are going to have to choose. Please pray for grace and understanding among those whose churches will not be opened; that they will forgive their clergy. Please pray that the shoots of new faith and spirituality which have sprung up even while our doors are closed may not be quenched because someone else has concluded this is all superficial and not ‘real’ faith.

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  2. Alas, many of our bishops seem more interested in issuing comminations against people they don’t like than in opening churches, which are increasingly presented as members-only clubs for frequent worshippers.

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  3. It is interesting that the Church of England never went through its own “Vatican II”, a renewal from the sources. Probably a good thing. It interests me however how easily the checks and balances disappeared so quickly. In March at a national level the Church not only had nothing unique to say, it seemed almost more secular minded than Parliament itself. Its words could have been written by and for a local authority. It was I think both the triumph and the ruin of a culture that, unlike Vatican II, adds to but rarely removes something from the Canons, let alone Prayer Book. It is interesting that for all Synods are puffed up, so many insightful criticisms have come from Churchwardens. Sources matter and today what Parliament passes can be read online so it is not difficult to see that there was always a difference between advice and law (as people are now discovering).

    A careful reading of the Coronavirus Act has interesting pointers to the Canons (which in law have the force and effect as statutes, ie they are part of the law of England). There are no restrictions on clergy going to their places of worship, a place of worship should be closed but there are exceptions. Food banks, funerals and very importantly support of the vulnerable. Type that word into google and in law it states what can and should be provided. Interestingly worship can be livestreamed – if you are a Gospel Church then your worship involves a choir. The very many restrictions on what can be filmed are not in the Act of Parliament. Oddly the duty on clergy to baptise is not mentioned. I suspect that an off the shelf Act of Parliament, rushed through with many MPs not reading it owing to panic and fear all contributed to today’s unhappy situation. It should now be obvious that the Canons have gone no where, similarly our human rights. Families, offered 15 minutes slots at the Crematorium, will discover that the service could always have been in church. For some cleanliness became more important than godliness. It may be that rather than the Church of England speaking for or extending its privileges in law to other faiths (a modern defence of establishment) it gave them up. It seems now no favours are been given in return. If we treat the churches of England as “places of worship” like any other then no surprise on Pentecost Sunday they are still closed.

    Oddly it is establishment, being the Church for the nation, that could have mattered now. How ridiculous that as schools return, assemblies and services, or even school visits are not possible in church. I imagine that churches are being prevented from being opened because it would also mean opening very large places of worship in urban areas of a different faith (and for very obvious reasons) and the government won’t say it.

    I am now in fact glad the Churches are closed at Whitsun because it returns us to the day the Holy Spirit was made manifest in wind and flame. Much now needs to be blown and burnt away and. Interesting how better life is without the meetings and emails, how interesting the canons and prayer book can be. How interesting how many clergy think they don’t matter. It takes us back to the evening of Easter Day when the Apostles gathered behind locked doors, fearful. But at Pentecost the new Israel, the new community of faith emerged and after Peter address the crowd they asked “what shall we do”? What should we have done as a Church? Had some thought about it they might have said to the clergy of the Church of England: you know your church/area/people. Respond as you can. Yes there are risks but the greatest risk is to close the doors. Remember the parable about judgement. When you saw me hungry, did you feed me, thirsty a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me? We can so easily forget that we can judge the risk of doing something, but never know the risk of not doing something.

    We might have been reminded as well that those who asked St Peter, what shall we do, and who were baptised, received the gifts of the Spirit. Had only the Church said, before it called in its numerous advisors, remember the fruits of the Spirit as described by St Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. If we look to Scripture, tradition, reason, our foundations, there is the “deep” church of England that can with a bit of wind be rekindled,

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  4. Well spoken, Stephen. My mother and I were reflecting this evening on Cardinal Vincent Nicholls’ excellent contribution to today’s R4 ‘Sunday’ programme and the disparity between the RC and C of E public stances.

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  5. My church is St Mary’s Priory Abergavenny
    We are the Westminster of Wales
    Finest monuments outside of a Cathedral many visitors from all over the world Alas no more
    I have welcome visitors at the entrance for 16years shared many a sad story
    People light a candle even when they say they dont believe
    Prayers from Wales UK

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  6. I’ve been writing about this here https://faithroot.com/2020/06/01/we-are-not-being-discriminated-against/ I think we are confusing a few things. First of all importance and risk. The issue re church buildings opening is to do with the later not the former. Secondly, the confusion between physical space and being gathered as God’s people in his presence. The place which we love as the place where the Lord dwells is not the church building but the church as God’s people filled with the Spirit, in Christ. Thirdly, we risk confusing public and private. The nature of private prayer is that it is something I do on my own without show. The point about public gathering is that it is corporate -we one another each other

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  7. It is telling that the RCC have made all the running during the crisis. This is by no means the first time the RCC has completely eclipsed the Church of England in providing any form of spiritual leadership (one thinks of Cardinal Manning during the famous 1889 dockers’ strike or Cardinal Bourne during the 1926 general strike). In 1926, at least, Randall Davidson could have claimed (had he been so bold) that he was muzzled by Reith, Baldwin and Churchill. I’m not certain that the current leadership have the same excuse. Instead, they have confined their ‘leadership’ to critiques of Dominic Cummings’ antics – and some of those critiques have led a few bishops to descend to the partisan gutter.

    The Church of England has also conspicuously failed to articulate any vision for the reformation of society and, above all, for the reconstitution of our political economy. The crisis has been a golden opportunity to do so, and the Church has funked it abjectly. The crisis disrupted the economy, and nothing is more ominous – to my mind – than the objective of ‘getting back to normal’. Since we are now starting to get back to normal, I fear that the chance of resetting the system has passed, or has almost passed. My suspicion is that if it is even considering how our economy ought to be reformed, the discussions have vanished into various committees. Whatever has or hasn’t happened, it simply adds further grist to those who consider the Church of England a largely useless organisation, and that its ‘establishment’ is essentially pointless and ought to be abolished.

    As to the opening of churches, well – obviously – the Church is the people *and* the buildings. The attempt to create a artificial distinction between the two allows the Church, when it has failed in a particular place, is intended and often used to justify closing the building and selling it for its own financial benefit (leaching away [stealing?] from the community affected capital that has been invested by that community in the form of donations *and* taxation). It is a thoroughly disingenuous – if not dishonest – as well as idiotic mantra.

    After the initial panic had subsided, in the middle of May, the justification for shuttering buildings largely evaporated. There has been a conspicuous failure to see and learn from what has been happening in Europe. In France, which for most of the time – at least under PHE and HMG allowed the virus to run riot in care homes – had a mortality rate comparable to England, services have been livestreamed from within churches all along. I have attended many such services. Things are now essentially back to normal in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, etc., subject to appropriate distancing – and, yes, it is perfectly possible to distance properly in churches. Last Sunday I saw many instances of this in small rural churches in France, Germany and Italy.

    What’s more, finding services being livestreamed from inside churches in England since the rules were relaxed the week before last has been a real effort. This is almost as true of cathedrals as parish churches. The numbers doing so appear vanishingly small. As such I have more or less given up on the Church of England, and have been attending livestreamed services from other European countries. This is not to deprecate virtual church, although its quality has been highly variable.

    If there are concerns about the virus adhering to surfaces – notably door handles – then that can presumably be dispensed with if alcoholic washing lotions (which are now much more readily available and inexpensive compared with even a few weeks ago) are much in evidence. On the last Sunday before lockdown I attended services at a number of churches in Warwickshire and Worcestershire and found no handwashes or any form of distancing in evidence.

    The utility of virtual church as a model for the future may be measured by the current levels of contributions (parish share). The collapse has been almost total. Virtual church is only a plausible model if the income stream it generates matches that prevailing prior to lockdown. It hasn’t so it isn’t. As soon as lockdown occurred in France almost every diocese started major appeals for funds and its clergy – who are paid less than half of Church of England clergy – took significant pay cuts or went on the dole. Not only did it take ages for dioceses here to make comparable appeals (many still haven’t) but it seems there has been little attempt to rationalise the cost base – i.e., the incomes of the clergy – during the crisis. Some clergy have taken voluntary cuts (based on anecdotal evidence), but this presumably affects only a minority. I cannot help but wonder whether the profession is collectively myopic (and is afflicted by an ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality) or if there is even some conspiracy to provoke a major shake-out of the asset base – churches – so that clerical income streams are preserved at the expense of churches.

    The response of the Church to the crisis has made me wonder whether, for all the palpable good being done locally – is institutionally incompetent. Its response to this crisis has been all of a piece with its response to past crises (e.g., World War I, the General Strike, etc.), in which instances of individual and sporadic heroism are swamped by the apathy and chronic want of imagination that seems to afflict the Church as a whole.

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