The British Government said that in England and Wales places of worship will be allowed to open for private prayer from June 15. In Ireland public Masses are scheduled to restart on June 29. Here two writers exchange views on whether the churches should remain cautious about reopening or whether they should accept a degree of risk in order to allow the faithful to return. David Quinn is a columnist for the Sunday Times’ Irish edition and Mgr Mark Langham is Catholic chaplain to the University of Cambridge.
Dear Mgr Mark,
The Cross is not a symbol of health and safety. It feels necessary to point that out because the Catholic Church on these two islands appears to be attaching ultimate value to health and safety and little or none to risk. Here in Ireland, the restoration of public worship, with very limited numbers allowed into a church at any one time, was not originally scheduled until July 20, one of the latest dates in Europe. This has now been brought forward to June 29, along with other sectors in society which have been allowed to reopen faster than intended. There had been no visible pushback from the bishops on this front and indeed the Association of Catholic Priests publicly attacked those of us who did press for an earlier date than July 20.
The Irish Constitution protects freedom of worship, but the hairdressers are so urgent about returning to business, urged on by their customers, that perhaps a new constitutional right to getting your hair done should replace it? I am not being glib when I say this. Visiting a hairdresser or a restaurant in this new Covid world of ours will involve an element of risk, but many members of the public seem to be willing to run that risk. In contrast, the message from most of the bishops on these islands appears to be that almost any risk is too much.
The Church was not always like this. It used to accept that a certain amount of risk was a normal part of life. In Ireland, Catholics often took huge risks to attend illegal Masses at open air ‘Mass rocks’ during penal times. To this day, it is extremely risky to be a Christian in certain parts of the world.
You might say this is different, that if you are infected, you risk others. That is true, but when the Church exists under conditions of persecution, sometimes the families of the Christians are also put at risk. Health and safety are important, but they are not absolutely important. They need to be balanced against other goods, including simply getting on with life, and that includes attending public worship. An imbalance seems to have entered into the leadership of the Church in Britain and Ireland. It has led our leaders to become too risk-averse.
Yes, we must take extra precautions when public Masses finally return, but if the Church had always been as health and safety dominated as it appears to be today, I doubt we would have ever even heard of it. The Church was partly built on risk, calculated to be sure, but risk all the same. That is one reason why the Cross is our symbol and not a face mask.
‘People matter, buildings don’t’:One of the late Fr Michael Hollings’ pithy sayings, which, like most pithy sayings, expresses a broad truth while falling short in nuance. Buildings do matter to people, and churches matter to Catholics. In dedicating these buildings for the service of God, we look back to King Solomon, whose Temple was ‘an exalted house, a place for God to dwell in for ever’, a house of which God declared ‘my name shall be there.’ In a way that more evangelical Christians perhaps do not appreciate, Catholic churches are not accidental buildings, that we use as a sentimental convenience. Of course we can praise God on our kitchen table; but in a special way, God is waiting for us in his Temple, the light burns before the Tabernacle, the space is filled with the glory of God.
It is therefore right of our Catholic bishops to urge the Government to bring forward the re-opening of our churches. They matter to us. As Cardinal Hume used to say of Westminster Cathedral, ‘they help us to say our prayers’.
At the same time, it is right that our Bishops have established a procedural framework that recognises the difficulties and delicacies of re-opening our churches, even for private prayer. A Church that cares for the frail and marginalised must, to some extent, move at the pace of the slowest among its flock. Many of those who most yearn to be in church are precisely those who are most at risk – the elderly, the frail – who would be most at danger in such a setting. As Cardinal Vincent notes, the resources required to open a church even for private prayer are considerable – he lists necessary routines of supervision, distancing and cleaning. None of this impossible, but it is daunting, especially to parishes of few resources. Catholicism is a religion of the senses, including touch – one of the reasons we feel the lockdown so deeply – and the urge to reach out, to touch a statue, card, prayer book, candlestand, will have to be resisted. Beyond private prayer, when public worship is again permitted, the issues multiply. For most churches, social distancing will mean that only a fraction of the usual congregation will be permitted to attend. What, then, is a priest to do? Issue tickets? Put up barriers?
The Bishops have drawn up detailed and considered plans to enable this to happen, and it is right to pressure our legislators to heed Catholic impatience – it is notable that this weekend, the numerous businesses and activities listed in newspapers for re-opening do not include places of worship. That is hurtful and ignorant. But much as we long to be back in church, we have a responsibility to do so in a way which does not endanger or further isolate our frailest members. Our Lord will judge us, in the end, not on how speedily we open our doors, but how deeply we have concern for the ‘least of his brethren.’ It is important that we get back into our churches, but not at any cost.
With best wishes,
Dear Mgr Mark,
Cardinal Vincent Nichols has questioned why shops are being allowed to open before churches in the UK even for private prayer, let alone public Masses. The British Government has now indicated churches may be open for private prayers earlier than the July date for reopening for public worship. So far as I can tell, however, the UK and Ireland will be the very last places in Europe to restore public worship. As I said in my first contribution, public worship in Ireland, with strict social distancing, was not due to take place until July 20. Even the new date of June 29 is later than almost anywhere else”.
In France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria and many other countries, public worship is already back, albeit with limited numbers allowed to attend. In Sweden and Poland, it was never fully stopped.
Crucially, one reason public worship has returned is because the Churches in those countries pushed for it. When Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, announced a phasing out of the lockdown in his country, he was putting churches near the back of the queue. The bishops objected, and a protocol was quickly agreed with the Italian Government which meant public Masses returned on May 18, with the support of Pope Francis.
In France, Catholics took the Government to court, and the court ordered a return to public worship on the grounds that a total ban was a disproportionate infringement of religious liberty. Public Masses are back for several days now.
Why is it that Catholics elsewhere in Europe, both Church leaders and laity, seem more assertive than on these islands? I return to my original thesis; we have become too wedded to the idea of health and safety. It has grown out of all proportion.
If we decide that we cannot return until everyone is as safe as possible, almost 100pc safe, then we will never return, not until there is a vaccine anyway (if there is a vaccine).
The vulnerable can still cocoon. Within churches we will socially distance and observe proper hygiene measures. People will almost certainly be safer than in a shop or a hairdresser.
We cannot be reckless, but all life involves a certain amount of risk. If public Masses across Europe, with the support of the Pope, can return, then so can we, certainly sooner than planned. We should be pushing for it more assertively, like in those other countries, otherwise we will show that we really have raised health and safety to a height it has never had in Christianity on these two islands before.
A recent Church of England blog contrasts the seeming reticence of its Bishops to challenge the lockdown with the attitude of Catholic Bishops: 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, because individual prayer in the House of God is an intrinsic part of Christian spiritual life. Indeed, the thoughtful decision of Catholic bishops to permit live-streaming of Mass throughout the lockdown was in marked contrast to the closure of Anglican churches (and, astonishingly, Cathedrals) even from their own clergy. The sight of the Cardinal Nichols celebrating Easter Mass at the High Altar of Westminster Cathedral imparted spiritual benefit in a way that Archbishop Welby’s kitchen Eucharist failed to do.
Our Catholic Bishops took seriously the threat to health that the virus posed at its height, but also took care within what was possible to maintain a sense of community through social media, and the generous provision of hospital chaplains. As the situation improves (although it is by no means clear that things will not deteriorate again), it is remarkable how far the Bishops are willing to push the agenda. That Cardinal Nichols should use his Pentecost sermon to argue for churches to be included alongside other premises that are to be opened was courageous: We are told that these openings, which are to be carefully managed, are based on the need to encourage key activities to start up again. Why are churches excluded from this decision? Just as notably, Archbishop Wilson of Southwark has published a strongly-worded letter to the Prime Minister expressing growing frustration that churches remain closed for private, individual, visits of prayer. For the Archbishop, the continued closure of churches at this stage is an infringement of both religious freedom and equity.
Indeed, their strong stance has borne fruit, with the Government making noises about bringing forward the opening date for churches to mid-June (instead of early July), though this is yet to be confirmed. It is hard to know what more the Bishops could have done, without openly flouting the rules: other European countries may have opened their churches earlier, but were ahead of us in the timetable of infection, so reached a stage where it was safe to resume worship earlier. As Archbishop Wilson points out, the Catholic Church seeks to collaborate in ensuring our country recovers from Covid-19 in ways that are safe and secure. He, and other Bishops, will be mindful that this includes protecting an increasingly elderly and frail cohort of priests, whose health must not be sacrificed for dramatic gesture. But pressure is being kept up, arguments are made forcefully and compellingly, and as lockdown restrictions ease, we can feel confident that our pastors are not going to allow the Church to be left behind.
With every good wish,
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