All public Church of England services will be suspended until further notice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After the government’s declaration on Monday that mass gatherings of the public should be avoided, the Church said Sunday and mid-week services should stop immediately.
Although the buildings could remain open for individual private prayer, parishes will hold neither their regular services, nor any mid-week groups or other gatherings.
This is the first time in the nearly 500-year history of the Church of England such a suspension has occurred.
Throughout previous public emergencies, the C of E has previously seen its role as providing spiritual succour and support and if anything placed a greater emphasis on collective Christian worship.
However, with the spread of Covid-19 accelerating across Britain the C of E leadership has taken the unprecedented decision to shut down services for the foreseeable future.
In a joint letter, the archbishops of Canterbury and York said the Church was not “shutting up shop” but needed to become a radically different institution focused on prayer and service to the community.
They also urged parishes to continue holding virtual services, livestreaming hymns, prayers, sermons and even Communion across the internet to congregations holed up at home.
Canon law states every church ordinarily must hold a service each Sunday and a special application would normally have to be made by a vicar to the local bishop to cancel a regular service.
However, the C of E has obtained legal advice that suggests these canons can be ignored for the time being under the doctrine of “necessity”, a legal rationale that states actions outside of the law can be justified if they were necessary to prevent greater harm.
Although there has never been any nationwide suspension of church services before, individual parishes have from time to time cancelled worship because of localised outbreaks of disease or plague.
In the most famous case, the Derbyshire village of Eyam, led by its Anglican rector, decided to self-quarantine for more than a year in 1665 after an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Although the rector led services outdoors to hinder transmission, the disease claimed the lives of at least 273 villagers, about a quarter of Eyam’s population.
Because the current suspension is entirely unprecedented it is unclear what impact it will have on the Church and what response it will provoke from the faithful.
In their joint letter, the archbishops encouraged ordinary Anglicans to not give up on their faith entirely while churches are shuttered but instead think creatively about how they could serve their community and maintain participation in the Church.
Clergy are allowed to continue holding communion for themselves, potentially livestreaming the ritual to parishioners. And congregants should be ready to look after the vulnerable in their neighbourhoods and, even, be prepared to provide pastoral care to those left bereaved by Covid-19.
Church attendances had already been steadily declining in the C of E for half a century. In the latest figures (for 2018) 871,000 people attended Anglican services each week, and a third of those are already aged over 70.
It is possible a total cessation of public worship could prove the death knell for large-scale public attendance at church services, although it is impossible to know at this stage and a lot will depend on how long the pandemic and the suspension lasts.
Much of the conversation within the Church around the end of public worship has been more upbeat, noting that for years there have been moves to shift the Church’s focus away from an hour of collective worship each Sunday morning.
Now, with the most obvious form of Anglican practice cancelled, it will become clearer just how effective attempts to broaden the C of E’s community and mission have been.
Professor Alec Ryrie, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University: “I’m not aware of any precedent of a long-term blanket stop to public worship like this in the Church of England’s entire history. There might very occasionally have been suspensions locally in particular circumstances but a cessation of public worship across the entire country for an undefined period . . . I’m not aware of anything that comes close to a precedent.
“Of course outbreaks of infectious disease have been one of the most regular public disasters throughout our history. That’s something the Church of England has long seen as part of its of its core responsibility. The first occasional service of worship that was created for the Church of England to use rather than as part of the routine of the Book of Common Prayer was created for an outbreak of plague in 1563.
“But in those times, the Church saw it as its responsibility to use these occasions to bring the population as a whole to prayer and repentance to call them back to God. It would interpret these events as a judgment.
“It’s going to mean some profound changes to the way that the Church thinks of itself. And when it’s all over, and that could be a long time, things will not just snap back to the way they were before. One possibility is that this will mark a full stop in the process of the Church of England’s slow decline. This will be a cliff-edge or tipping point from which it will never be able to come back. We could look back on this at the point when the Church of England more or less shut up shop.
“The other is that what the archbishops are suggesting is what actually happens. If it’s able to turn into a community or network which provides care and spiritual and practice resource for the people in the midst of this dislocating, unsettling, frightening, drawn-out episode, then it may come to see this as a blessing in disguise. And a point where it was able to rediscover what it’s what it’s truly for.”