Death by Door Handle?

A worrying article appeared last month on the website Christian Today (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/covid.confusion.church.of.england.clergy.and.their.buildings/134830.htm?fbclid=IwAR3nroV245EFKZTGH5y58HGy5sqvl-kWkHaQD8uHNYJqzHrPpW7u8hFtcLQ). Worrying, because the bad science this article promotes was already at large in the minds of many, both within and without the Church; and the publication of such articles lends further credence to these misinformed notions of how churches may contribute to, or detract from, good public health. It is, of course, reasonable for clergy to disagree on issues of theology; it is not reasonable to bring misleading or plainly incorrect scientific thinking to the fore in defence of their arguments. It is this that the article so clearly does, and in doing so, has damaged not only its own credibility, but that of the Church. There is nothing the Church needs less, at the moment, than scaremongering.

The article suggests that clergy going into churches alone to pray or livestream worship, as Government legislation explicitly permits, could pose a significant risk to human life – in fact could kill people:

“Somewhere, a vicar enters a church for private prayer. He locks the door as he comes out, and returns home. Later, a passing care worker, weary after a long nursing home shift, walks past on the way home and wonders if they could pop into the building for a bit of peace. They try the handle of the church door, only to find it closed. Never mind – home they go, and back next day into work.

It turns out the care worker has picked up Covid-19 from the church door handle, as the vicar had been infected but was not yet showing symptoms. The coronavirus spreads from the care worker to the elderly residents of the nursing home, and a dozen die.”

Such an argument is dangerous and misleading. Merely being outside does not kill people, nor does going in and out of buildings alone. This priest is not posing a major public health threat – that is simply incorrect. The care worker in this story would not get coronavirus if he or she washed their hands after touching the infected doorknob, as basic government advice clearly suggests, and likewise, the virus would not have been there in the first place if the priest had done so. Coronavirus doesn’t get in through the skin. The most fundamental advice for the control of the virus has been “wash your hands” — this hasn’t changed, and it could quite reasonably be expected that a care worker, of all people, would be diligent in following it. It seems a shame not only to demonise clergy, but at the same time to cast doubt on the ability and inclination of care workers to follow simple public health advice. It is, in fact, much more likely that a vicar or a care worker would get the virus from someone’s inability to follow social distancing measures in a supermarket.

The article immediately follows this story with concerns about the media storm that such a situation would have created. Were such a situation to have been likely, then surely the true tragedy would be the preventable deaths, not the bad press for the Church.

We need also to be cautious of any implied criticism of other Christian denominations which have not imposed the same guidance as was issued in the Church of England. The Catholic Church, and most other denominations, appear to have managed not to deliver “death by door handle”, and yet still conducted liturgies behind closed doors — which is what the 800 signatories to the letter in The Times were asking for. Rightly, there has been no official criticism of them for doing so, and we must ensure that such is not implied by over-keen endorsements of the limits placed upon the Church of England.

We must guard too against linking the unlikely “death by door handle” scenario with thousands of deaths in totally different circumstances, which is both irresponsible and dishonest:

“Moreover, they [Justin Welby & John Sentamu] would also have been aware of other countries where churches attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons by spreading Covid-19. One church in France was linked to 2,500 cases, another in South Korea to 5,000.”

Again, it seems like bad press rather than tragic deaths is deemed the more important concern; but setting that aside, no one was arguing that church services should have continued as normal – rather that a priest should be able to conduct worship in a building, alone. This course of action would not kill thousands of people, as in the cited cases in France or South Korea. Either the article is deliberately misleading here, or there is a failure to understand the huge differences in the two situations.

In addition, the article exhibits a problematic and simplistic approach to sacred space and the biblical theology of place – a topic which, I hope, elsewhere, this blog will come to explore. For now, the naivety of the contra-juxtaposition of Old Testament theology of the Jerusalem temple and New Testament theology of the indwelling Spirit ought to cause some concern, because of its unthinkingly supersessionist tones.

The article comments that the measures restricting clergy from use of their churches were “always going to be temporary.” We now know that they were indeed temporary; the problem is that the restrictions were unnecessary, and as yet there has been no good account for them.

We are now beginning to plan for the return to some public use of our buildings – though frustratingly the timescale is still to be announced. Preliminary advice on opening for private prayer has been released on the Church of England website within the last week. It is crucial that any information, or interpretation, that accompanies the bringing in to effect of these changes is based on good science, and not on bad.

Commenting on the decision of the Archbishops and Bishops to close churches even to the clergy for the purposes of prayer and digital broadcast of worship, the author says, “maybe they got this right, maybe they were over-cautious; I don’t know.” It seems that perhaps this is the truest part of the article — an admission that the author is not an expert and has limited knowledge in this field. Sadly, as it stands, the article is a potential public health risk in its own right; as such, we would suggest that it would have done better to have started and stopped with that sentence alone.

The Rev’d Richard Bastable

7 thoughts on “Death by Door Handle?

  1. We do know that the virus can linger on hard surfaces for several days. It was presumably the case of contamination at Churston Ferrers (Devon) and the response of Gina Radford which prompted the national closure of the buildings. What I imagine is that someone in authority with a concern about the risk of an insurance payout (the occupier of the applicable premises having strict liability in tort) asked Prof. Radford how any such risk could be avoided altogether, and was probably told “well, the only way to avoid any payout would be to shut everything”, and so it happened.

    This approach was justifiable for a while, and not least because of the demographic profile of the vast majority of congregations, and in the context of the Great Fear which persisted in March, April and into May. However, the virus has flowed and ebbed in a dynamic fashion but the Church authorities have not responded accordingly. I suspect they appear to be animated by insurance considerations, yet they are arguably losing far more money by keeping churches close – and so losing parish share income – than any potential insurance award they might have to make in the event it could be demonstrated that an illness was attributable to a door handle (itself a rather difficult thing to prove in a trial). In a sense the bench have not been unreasonable in effecting a trade off on the side of safety, but as many have argued, it seems to be curious that supermarkets have remained open (when it would be possible to rely on deliveries) whilst churches have been shuttered (and the only provision has been in the form of ‘deliveries’ by dint of virtual church).

    The cynical might argue that it’s almost as if the bench want to destroy fragile parish churches which are now deemed surplus to requirements, with the virus being used as an excuse to slough off the stock and the proceeds diverted to maintaining clerical incomes.

    It is also noteworthy that even though clergy have been allowed back into buildings to livestream rites for the last couple of weeks, very few have done so (in my experience of some random searches over many benefices across the country). Is this mere mulishness, or is it a reluctance to re-enter buildings which are perceived as being such a burden? Is it that many clergy secretly or not so secretly loathe their buildings and have viewed the lockdown as a sort of liturgical ‘rumspringa’, conveniently forgetting (of course) that it is because the buildings have closed that parish share subventions have collapsed?

    One of the most striking things about the way in which the bench has responded to this crisis (absent the dubious legality of its diktats) is that little or no attention seems to have been paid to developments only on the other side of the Channel.

    Throughout the entire crisis I have watched scores of livestreamed services in France, Germany, etc., sometimes led by very senior clergy from inside church buildings. Strip out the care homes disaster and the discreditable 10 or so day delay in applying the lockdown, the rate of infection and mortality in the UK is not so very different from that of France, Italy or Spain. Public services recommenced in France a fortnight ago, subject to distancing (they recommenced in Germany and Austria well before then) and the mandatory wearing of face masks – though not by clergy (face masks are more commonly worn in Germany even by clergy reading the liturgy or scripture).

    The mental attitude of the Church of England seems to be that there is fog in the Channel, so the continent must be cut off.

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  2. I think the continued lack of online worship from church buildings has more to do with lack of WiFi and accessories to recording equipment than mulishness or infection control. It demonstrates how far behind the curve most parish churches really are with multimedia worship, yet this is a topic for another day.

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    1. Many thanks. This might be the case. It is true that I have found it very difficult to find live streamed worship from Scandinavia and much of the Low Countries. In Germany, there has been much more provision by RC churches than by their Evangelical-Lutheran counterparts. However, this morning I have been able to attend livestreamed worship from a number of French, German and Italian churches, even in quite obscure rural communes, and have been struggling to find anything comparable for England so far. In Italy, for instance, there has been an embarrassment of riches available.

      Last Sunday I tried about fifteen English cathedrals (amongst many parish churches), and only Durham, Exeter and Lincoln were providing eucharists from inside the buildings: I am not convinced that the other cathedrals I tried lack WiFi. Nor am I convinced that English churches are uniquely backward, though I admit that a great many rural churches will lack WiFi.

      In fact online worship has generally been less readily available from mainland Europe over the last few weeks, and this is largely because worship from inside buildings has resumed as normal. During the French lockdown one diocese (Bourges) was having a diocesan online service from within a different parish church each Sunday, with the archbishop, Mgr. Jerome Beau, celebrating each time (very impressively). This has now stopped because he wanted people to get back into the buildings as normal, subject to proper distancing and the wearing of face masks. Even a couple of weeks before the end of the French lockdown he was pressing his clergy/parishes to be primed and ready to go back to normal. I have encountered this attitude in other French dioceses. One English diocese I encountered (Hereford) was having a weekly service from a different building after the total ban on entry was removed, but I found the provision almost perfunctorily short compared with that across the Channel.

      I am continuing to search for provision in England, and I hope that things have improved this Sunday.

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      1. ‘I hope things have improved this Sunday’.

        It seems they haven’t.

        I have searched again a considerable number of parishes in one diocese in the north-west, and found no livestreamed provision from within churches. Perhaps I have been unlucky. More general searches have proved largely fruitless, though there were a small handful of results. As in previous weeks, there are some parishes which provide worship via Zoom, but this necessitates writing to the parish administrator for access (which some might construe as a form of admission to the club).

        The position with respect to cathedrals has not been vastly better: Chester, Wakefield and Salisbury were offering parts of their provision from inside; Gloucester and Winchester had re-recorded provision from inside. Lichfield and Liverpool were celebrating from inside. There were a couple of cathedrals which were still advertising worship for Pentecost. Once cathedral in Wales does not appear to have had any discernable provision of any kind since lockdown began.

        We have now had three months of lockdown – which is a pretty long time. I would have assumed that if there are any technical difficulties there would have been overborne to sum extent by the provision of a central advice service supplied by the Commissioners, advising how worship can be made available from inside buildings (or, indeed, how virtual worship can be provided from parsonages, since there are a great many parishes where there is no provision of any kind). I would have assumed that such advice would have been supplied from the outset of the lockdown, which would have been especially useful for vulnerable parishes.

        So again I feel glad that I was able to attend worship from churches in other European countries.

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