Loved ones ill or even dying; fear everywhere; the healthy cowering at home; jobs on the scrapheap; nations in lockdown. I cannot think of a moment during my lifetime when the Church was needed more. And what does it do? It shuts its doors.
It began with the announcement that the faithful should no longer touch each other during the Sign of Peace, and the banning of reception of Holy Communion from the Chalice. The concept of the Real Presence spreading death and destruction was difficult enough to take on board, but when the priest announced with a twinkle in his eye that we would no longer be passing round the collection plate, I had to suppress a snort of disbelief.
If we passed the plate to each other we would be in danger of passing on the virus. Never mind that after the service we were all passing our filthy lucre to the splendid lady collecting for the fish and chip lunch, and our hymn books to the lady who stacks them up in neat piles. Never mind that half the congregation rested its hands on the pew backs for support when rising and helped itself along to the Communion line doing the same thing.
I almost felt sorry for the poor, picked-on, isolated collection plate, but the following week all the hymn books had joined it. That was something of a blessing as the faithful of Bovey Tracey never have been able to make much of a joyful noise unto the Lord. When we break into At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing there is about as much enthusiasm as if we were singing about being down t’other place. That of course is my Evangelical background talking.
Meanwhile the priest squirted sanitiser on our hands as we left. A bit late by then, Father.
I thanked God for the wisdom of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who said that churches should remain open for people to enter and pray even if they were not offering Mass. Most churches are ideal for that purpose as it is possible to sit at the far end of the pew from others who have wandered in. But sadly most churches do not open anyway these days if nothing is happening, because the unjust tend to go in and nick the poor-boxes and the silver.
We should have a campaign to keep the churches open all day while this crisis lasts, with a rota of people to keep an eye on what is happening and to look for anything untoward. The problem is that many would-be volunteers are kicking their heels indoors by government edict because they are guilty of the heinous sin of being senior citizens.
I, regrettably, am one of them. Fit, healthy, not taking any medication and with no underlying health problems, I am forced to live like a hermit by a panic-stricken government. So I and millions like me will face Easter without Communion. The last time I experienced that was in 1993 when I was converting to Catholicism, but not yet received, and the late, great Cardinal Hume was unshakable in enforcing Church teaching. I grumbled then too!
If we cannot go to our church, the Church can still come to us – or rather some of us. Priests, of course, will be out and about, as they have always been throughout history’s various tribulations, and I hope that will include the older ones who are up to it. They will visit the sick and infirm, but as swathes of us are now ordered to be housebound, that category may not be so blessed. Whether they will be allowed into care homes and nursing homes is anybody’s guess. Nor is it clear what the policy will be in prisons where, after all, prison officers still have to come and go.
However hard priests try, there are simply not enough of them to go round, and, as already observed, many church volunteers are themselves caught by the latest measures. I suspect – and hope – we will see an outbreak of prayer and blessing by email and service by internet.
Meanwhile, I am pondering the intriguing conundrum of when Lent ends and I can leaven my reluctant isolation with my first scotch on the rocks for 45 days. Normally it is straightforward: Lent ends when all the bells ring out for the Gloria at the Easter Vigil and the whole of Buckfast Abbey lights up. I turn to my sister-in-law and murmur “glug, glug, glug”.
But now I won’t be going to the Easter Vigil because even Holy Week services will fall victim to the wretched plague policy. So I suppose I must just wait for Sunday lunchtime like the Protestant I once was.
Ann Widdecombe is a politician, author, and former prisons minister
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