For the past five Sundays, lay Catholics in the UK have been forbidden from attending Mass. For the most part, we have accepted the situation with disappointment but quiet resignation, understanding that the first priority has to be protecting those workers on the frontline and their vulnerable patients.
Now there are signs that the worst has passed. As you can see in the graph below, England passed the peak in deaths back on April 8. That means infections probably peaked some two to three weeks earlier. So it is right that thoughts are now turning to when and how the lockdown restrictions can be eased.
I am an economist, so you might think that I would be especially concerned about the financial impact of lockdown. It is true that the economic costs will be huge in terms of bankruptcies, unemployment and public borrowing; in turn, this has serious implications for the affordability of public spending on health and public services for years to come. But just as important is the burden caused by restrictions to our personal freedoms and day-to-day activities: sitting at the bedside of your dying auntie, volunteering at a local charity shop, visiting your grandparents, taking children to Friday-night cricket practice and a hundred-and-one other activities that have been left in limbo. For Catholics, of course, high on the list is being unable to attend Mass or receive the sacraments.
The cost of these foregone activities may be difficult to measure, but it is certainly enormous. Most of us are willing to put up with the situation for a limited period of time to help save lives, but we should not forget the unprecedented nature of such restrictions and they should not be in place a day longer than strictly necessary.
So how should our exit from lockdown be applied to the Church? Concerns about a second wave of infections and deaths mean we any changes need to be implemented in stages but there are things that could and should be done almost immediately.
There is a strong case for re-opening churches for personal prayer straight away. As long as obvious safety precautions such as hand sanitiser and limits on the number people at any one time are put in place, such a measure carries minimal risk. Indeed, on Sunday Bishop Egan of Portsmouth made clear in a Tweet how uncomfortable he has been with this measure.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday I wonder again about the closure of our churches for private prayer. I know it’s an emergency and so temporary measures are needed. But are we reversing the hierarchy of values, putting physical health above spiritual? Let’s pray we can reopen soon. pic.twitter.com/ijmLBZNYRK
It is hard to exaggerate the anxiety that can be caused by a lack of access to Confession. Similarly, being unable to baptise children or get married is far more than just an inconvenience. Reinstating some access to all three of these sacraments should be next on the list. Finally, we should starting to plan for how, in due course, we can start to allow people to attend Mass once again, even if only on a limited basis.
My plea to our bishops is to be imaginative and generous in this process, both in terms of pressing the Government for changes but also in the guidance they give to priests.
For example, we should think about the possibility of open-air confession and services. Some parishes in the US have been operating drive-through Confessions – why not in the UK too? It might be impractical to hold Mass in a church car park (ours tend to be smaller than US ones), but there are plenty of Catholic schools with sufficiently large grounds to allow outdoor Masses with a high degree of social distancing.
It’s possible that in a few weeks the government will ease the lockdown, while maintaining some social distancing requirements. If so, let’s try to be flexible: insisting on social distancing might mean a limit of 20 people in a small church, but 100 or more could be workable in a large cathedral. Thought could also be given to whether our Sunday obligation can be temporarily transferred to any day of the week, so that attendance is spread out over more Masses.
Finally, a gradual end to lockdown over early summer could provide wonderful opportunities for outdoor May processions in honour of Our Lady and then Corpus Christi processions in June. A side-effect of the two-metre rule might be that the length of such processions becomes seriously impressive; in any case, we should be bold in re-announcing our faith in public.
The Pope has rightly expressed his worry about an online Church without human interaction and the sacraments. Let’s do everything we can to re-open our Churches and offer the sacraments to people the moment it is safe to do so.
David Paton is Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School and a Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @cricketwyvern