Cardinal Vincent Nichols has urged the British government to take plans to re-open churches more seriously after it emerged that religious buildings may not be allowed to open even for private prayer until July.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the cardinal called for the government to show “a bit more sensitivity” towards religious groups, and reminded them that the Catholic bishops have submitted detailed plans for opening churches safely. The cardinal added that these plans had been “agreed with Public Health England”.
“Now, in these last weeks, we’ve been creative, we’ve been faithful,” Cardinal Nichols said. “Mass has been celebrated every single day in Catholic churches. People have joined in online but there’s something, a big, big feeling in the religious communities, of wanting to get back to a fuller practice of their faith, as long as we can do it safely.”
Under the bishops’ plans, churches would initially re-open for private, individual prayer, the cardinal said. “It would mean a routine of supervision; a routine of social distancing; a routine of cleansing. And all of that we believe we can do.”
Nichols also called for greater understanding of the practices of different faiths. “A personal, individual prayer in a Catholic church is not something that is much done in Pentecostal churches, which tend to concentrate on big gatherings, and it’s not what’s done in mosques where people pray side by side,” Cardinal Nichols said. “So we need a bit of differentiated thinking.”
“If I could use the analogy of sport… At the moment, it’s okay to play tennis with your family, in a bit it will be okay to have a kick around with your mates in the park. It’ll be quite a time before we can go to formal football matches. It’s all sport, but we need to differentiate. We are talking about the practice of faith, but we also need to differentiate to make things safe – step by step.”
Public Masses have been suspended in Britain since 21 March. A couple of days later, the government ordered the closure of all religious buildings, even for private prayer.
On Monday, the government issued new guidance on the lockdown, but scarcely mentioned places of worship. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales criticised the guidance, saying: “The timing and the manner of the opening of churches touches profound sensitivities and spiritual needs. The Government’s document and statements fail to recognise this.”
“We’ve got plans; we’ve got preparation and we know the depth of peoples’ feeling and their need, so that they can live their faith well and safely,” Cardinal Nichols told the Today programme.
“People have been distanced from their sacraments,” he added. “They have been able to follow Mass every day and hundreds of thousands of people have joined in online. But every single one of them wants to be able to receive Holy Communion.”
“There is a great deal of deep spiritual sacrifice being made and, okay, we’re willing, but we want to know that we are appreciated and the sensitivities are recognised and that we have these opportunities to open up.”