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