Faith leaders meet ‘insensitive’ government over reopening places of worship

St. Augustine of Canterbury, Wiesbaden 10 May

By Tim Wyatt 15 May 2020

The British government, accused of lacking sensitivity towards religious practices, will receive faith leaders today (15 May)  to discuss the gradual reopening of places of worship.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, expressed his concern on the BBC’s Today programme, saying “the issues a about how people who want to practice their faith are profound and sensitive and they’d like a bit more sensitivity from the government.”

He added there was a big feeling in religious communities of wanting to get back to a fuller practice of their faith as long as it can be done safely.

For example, he would like churches to be open for private prayer which helped people’s inner stability and inspired motivation for service.  He is appealing for understanding that each faith and denomination is different and re-opening places of worship will follow different paths in each group, while following health and safety rules.

The meeting was announced by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government.  He described it as a  task force, to establish when and how places of worship can open safely. It follows the publication on Monday, of the government’s detailed plans for gradually lifting the coronavirus lockdown. To dismay of some, the documents stated places of worship would not be permitted to reopen until the third phase, which cannot begin before 4 July.

This places churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship in the same category as hairdressers, beauty salons and hospitality or leisure centres.

At least one MP, the evangelical Christian Conservative backbencher Derek Thomas, has said the importance of believers physically gathering together had been underestimated. “My message to government is, please recognise the value of meeting together for faith groups, and enable that to happen, but again, still in a safe and sensible way,” he told Premier Christian Radio.

Some other countries have made more concrete plans to reopen places of worship, despite the potential risk of Covid-19 spreading.

  • South Korea has allowed congregations to gather again since late April, although with strict rules ensuring buildings remained no more than a third full.  Other places of worship are, like in South Korea, deliberately controlling how many fill the building by making congregants register in advance if they wish to attend.
  • In Germany, churches have been allowed to open their doors but have been told not to do any congregational singing, which evidence suggests can facilitate greater transmission of the virus.
  • The Greek government will allow its churches to reopen on Sunday as long as worshippers each get 10 square metres of space to themselves and clean their hands with hand sanitiser at the door.
  • Spanish churches have also been allowed to hold public services again, provided social distancing rules are adhered to and everyone wears masks and gloves.

But in England at least – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’s devolved governments have set different lockdown rules – there is no prospect yet of any kind of socially-distanced or staggered return to places of worship.

Most Christian denominations have said they are content not to rush back and argued the health and safety of the faithful is more important than resuming rites and services.

  • The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who has been leading the Church of England’s coronavirus response, said in a statement the Church “strongly supported the Government’s approach of continuing to suppress the transmission of the virus and accordingly, we recognise that at this time public worship cannot return in the interests of public health and safety”.
  • A Church of Scotland spokesman broadly agreed, insisting there was “no argument” with the authorities about locking down church buildings. “We will work with regulators as well as other denominations and faith groups to ensure a safe and coordinated return when the time is right.”
  • The Secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler,  said his church members had missed being able to meet in person but said the congregations were happy to wait until it was safe for public worship to resume. “We recognise the paramount importance of the safety of members of the public and understand that any change to the current restrictions must be made with care”, he said.
  • Some have even said they do not believe a July resumption is wise, even if the government permit it. The Rev Steve Faber, speaking on behalf of the United Reformed Church (URC), said: “Although the government’s roadmap indicates that places of worship will be allowed to reopen when Step 3 of their recovery plan commences, the United Reformed Church is advising its congregations that even this may be too soon.” The URC is concerned a large proportion of its congregations are either aged over 70 or otherwise vulnerable to Covid-19, which means “our churches must not rush to re-open at the earliest possible opportunity, but rather take this time to evaluate risks to their members and make careful plans for reopening when the time is right”, Mr Faber said.

Some institutions did note that places of worship should not be lumped together with non-essential businesses or other leisure pursuits when it came to lifting the lockdown.

  • The Church of Scotland spokesman insisted they did not see themselves as “bottom of the list” when it came to easing restrictions, but acknowledged places of worship offered unique challenges for proper social distancing.
  • Diane Watts, from the Baptist Union’s faith and society team, said there had been “clear messaging to government that churches are not to be seen as leisure venues but a source of vital spiritual and community support at this time”. That said, it was important churches act responsibly and follow “public health measures designed to control this pandemic and limit its impact in our communities”, she added.
  • Perhaps offering the strongest rebuke was the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. In a statement, the Church criticised the government for not acknowledging people’s spiritual needs. “The timing and the manner of the opening of churches touches profound sensitivities and spiritual needs,” the statement said. “The government’s document and statements fail to recognise this.” The church added it would be pointing to the example of other nations where worship has already resumed in its discussions with the government and had already submitted a detailed plan for how churches could reopen for private prayer, as an interim stage before restarting full public worship.

Some other faith groups are cautious and others have also rejected the suggestion that religious buildings should be among the lowest priorities for reopening.

The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has told the Jewish Chronicle that synagogues, once re-opened, may have to limit worshippers for a time and some activities and events are unlikely to happen. The overriding principle should be a responsibility not to spread the virus.

The Muslim Council of Britain said it had received news of places of worship not re-opening until 4 July at the earliest with a heavy heart. It is seeking greater clarity and guidance from the government over what is allowed, for example, whether Eid prayers at the end of Ramadan, could take place in a park with social distancing. It said the indications are that this will not be allowed, so people should prepare to observe Eid at home.

The Sikh Federation said from the beginning the government had not consulted or properly understood the place of gurdwaras in Sikh life. Bhai Amrik Singh, who chairs the Federation, said his organisation had tried to contact ministers and officials to discuss how public worship at gurdwaras could resume but had been met with “total silence”. “Those running gurdwaras have huge responsibilities and government should have confidence in them to reopen with appropriate social distancing and safety precautions as some are already doing for last Sikh rites, with several funerals each week at some of the larger gurdwaras.”

The Sikh Council UK, agreed, arguing gurdwaras could “easily” apply similar measures being used in businesses to reopen with the necessary social distancing. Gurdwaras and other faith institutions had not been recognised by the government for the “valuable role they play in society”, Gurmel Singh, the councils secretary-general, said. “We very much hope that we won’t have to wait until after 4 July to begin reopening. Approaches are being made for us to pilot and progress with relevant people in government.”