I thought this month that I would share with you a letter that I sent to the “Task Force” that the government has set up to look at places of worship reopening. I would like to see the churches making a little more noise about the priorities of worship and of sacred spaces being reopened. At the moment we don’t give the impression that it matters much – and it does!
Outdoors has been shown to be very safe if social distancing is observed. A study in China of 7000 people who contracted Covid found only one person had caught it outdoors – and they suspect he had sat too close to someone. This is why I am encouraging people to use the churchyard to meet with another person safely.
I admit that my reasons for sharing this letter with you are mostly my personal frustration (I’ve not had a reply!), but this has gone on long enough in my view, and there are things that we could be doing without the slightest increase in risk from that which we face each day. Anyway, here it is:
“Dear members of the Places of Worship Task Force,
I’m a parish priest in the Church of England, and I am writing to ask the Task Force to give urgent priority to two issues.
Firstly, to the possibility of outdoor worship in our churchyards on a Sunday. I’m permitted to hold a graveside funeral for up to 10 people, and with the lifting of restrictions on people being outdoors, I’m sure that we could safely hold a series of half hour services in our churchyards on Sundays, with good social distancing, for those who are not self-isolating. This would of course need to supervised carefully, with people knowing to come at 9, 10 or 11 etc. to keep absolute control on numbers; but it is eminently doable. Government guidance seems to suggest worship indoors won’t happen before July, which would be heart-breaking.
From my tradition in the Christian faith, I am mostly concerned that people should be able to receive the sacrament, and so my idea is that it might be a “bring your own” bread and wine service, where people hold up bread that they have brought with them for the prayer of consecration. The details are obviously not your worry, but I want to demonstrate that there are creative ways of doing things that will be eminently safe. I’m sure the same will be true for the Muslim and Jewish faith communities with their own priorities. Also, it would be good to feel that we are trusted to do things safely, as we have been doing.
That said, even if communion is not possible, some kind of outdoor Sunday worship would feel better than none.
The second thing I’d like to ask is when we can allow our buildings to be open for private prayer and reflection for at least a couple of hours each day? This could be carefully supervised at the door, and many of our churches have two doors, allowing for entry and exit separately – far safer than most supermarkets can be. The funerals I’m taking at the moment are so severely limited in their scope that the pastoral care we can offer is far from what we would wish; and most families would dearly love the chance to come and light a candle in church – to say nothing of our faithful folk who long to come to pray. I feel that places of worship are being grouped with leisure centres and museums in a category of “not safe”, whereas in fact they can be perfectly safe – probably the safest indoor space there can be – and a precious resource for those for whom it matters. I don’t envisage queues, but if there were, they could be managed safely.
If there were at least some movement in these two areas, I’d feel that the government was championing people’s spiritual health a little more than it appears to at present.”