Coronavirus and religion – daily update 18 March

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By Rosie Dawson

Here are some recent developments in how the Covid-19 crisis is affecting religious life in UK and abroad.

As more churches take the decision to suspend public worship in UK, Christian leaders are considering changes in the way public faith is expressed and ways of “becoming a different kind of church”.

  • The Catholic church in England and Wales announced this morning that all public acts of worship will be suspended from Friday evening. In a Twitter thread, the Church said: “So many aspects of our lives must change. This includes the way we publicly express our faith.” It added that churches would remain open for prayer and that mass will continue to be celebrated daily without congregations present.
  • The Catholic Church in Scotland has also suspended services from tomorrow. It said: “We are responding to an unprecedented crisis in modern times and assure all those whom we lead that this decision has not been taken without much prayer and discernment.” It urged parishioners to join in the live streaming of mass from local churches with the facility for online services and said it was asking priests to continue to offer support to individuals requiring sacraments of anointing the sick and holy communion “as and when they are needed especially for the sick and housebound”.
  • The Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church both announced yesterday that they were suspending all public services. The Church of Scotland also announced the cancellation of its annual general assembly, which was to open on 16 May and which Prince William was due to attend.
  • The Church of England’s award-winning digital team is offering free webinars for people wanting to learn about the most effective ways to reach people online, including the use of social media and live streaming. Meanwhile individual priests and small ministry teams are streaming acts of worship, prompting online debates about both their practical and theological implications.
  • Father Gary Waddington, a biologist and Anglican priest, tweeted: “Either public worship is suspended or it isn’t. Having a small group of healthy Christians gather in a church sounds like privatised worship for the ‘in-crowd’ only. Will they know they’re not asymptomatic? Sorry if this sounds snarky – but I fear this will only confuse.”
  • Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican bishop and now a Roman Catholic, has questioned the necessity of suspending the public mass. He told the Religion Media Centre: “When I was at mass last Sunday there was at least a metre between everyone attending  and all the correct hygiene procedures were being followed.  So I would invite us to consider whether these latest restrictions are an over-reaction. From a practical, symbolic and spiritual perspective I  think they may be.  It’s a very loaded matter because throughout history Christians have had to resist – sometimes with their lives – prohibitions on their freedom to worship in public.”
  •  The BBC has announced that it will launch a virtual church service on its local radio stations in England. The first will be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It also plans to broadcast a weekly church television service on Sunday mornings and says it is exploring ways to support other faiths, especially Islam.  Ramadan is at the end of April.


  • In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel in the country. More than 1,000 people have already died with a further 17,000 cases confirmed. State television warned that millions could die if people continue to ignore official advice on health and travel. On Monday evening crowds of Shia worshippers forced their way into the courtyards of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, which had been closed because of the virus. Officials are also trying to prevent people from travelling to join families for the Persian New Year, which falls on Friday.
  • In Pakistan, 270 pilgrims have been quarantined after returning from Iran. The border between the two countries has now been closed. The number of Covid-19 cases stands at 236, although no deaths have been reported.
  • The Russian Orthodox Church has taken new steps to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The Church had been criticised after a video showed worshippers in St Petersburg queuing up to kiss a holy relic. Churches are now advised to forbid worshippers to kiss the cross at the end of the a service. They will still be permitted to kiss icons, but churches must disinfect the icons after each devotion. Churches will remain open but Sunday schools and parish meetings have been suspended.
  •   In Brazil, the 125ft statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro has closed to visitors. But the Roman Catholic archdiocese are planning a lightshow this evening, projecting the flags of all countries affected by Covid-19 onto the statue. Brazil reported its first death from the virus on Tuesday and has now declared a state of emergency.


The Rev Dr Peter Phillips, research fellow in digital theology at Durham University and head of digital theology at Premier Digital, said: “While the churches are closed, the Church is looking at how the spiritual life of their congregations can continue to flourish. One aspect which I think we will see develop in the coming weeks is the issue of spiritual as opposed to sacramental communion. The Book of Common Prayer speaks of an absent worshipper being able to take communion ‘profitably to his soul’s health’ even though he does not receive the sacrament with his mouth.

“In other words, priests can continue to celebrate communion and many, including the Pope, will do so online. Despite people not being able to receive the sacrament physically, the theology is all there for them to receive a spiritual benefit simply through their own devotion and watching the mass online.

“Let’s see where the theology of this goes since others, for example some enthusiastic Methodists, will develop ways to allow their congregations to provide their own bread and wine for online communion services. These are interesting times.”

 Father Gary Waddington, biologist and priest from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, said: “Because the understanding that we are a ‘gathered church’ is so important to us, acts of worship done alone can feel very much like the opposite of what we should be doing.

“But all infections start with someone. If you put an asymptomatic person with Covid-19 in a room with four or five others – even if they are three metres apart –  you are putting those people and all that they then go onto engage with at risk.

“I don’t think churches should be shut – yet – but there might come a point in the management of this crisis where, if all public spaces are put in ‘lockdown’ and there is effectively a curfew in place, then it will be inevitable.”


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