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