Catholic bishops in Scotland have announced plans to move safely towards a phased reopening of churches.
In addition, Church of England bishops have agreed a phased approach to lifting restrictions, including allowing limited access to church buildings for activities such as streaming of services or private prayer by clergy in their own parishes.
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland today announced a Covid-19 Working Group, which will begin work on the creation of an "infection control protocols" to govern the phased reopening of churches for public worship at an early and safe opportunity. The protocols will be presented to the Scottish government.
The group will be chaired by Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer and Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde.
Bishop Hugh Gilbert, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “Our lives remain greatly restricted by this crisis in a way that is painful and difficult for us as Christians. As bishops, we want to offer our thanks to our clergy, religious and laity for their patience and forbearance during these testing times.”
“Throughout these weeks of lockdown, there have been many signs of hope and faith and it is in the hope that we will recover, that we must plan for the future and find a safe pathway to the resumption of our sacramental life.”
“The bishops are keen to benefit from the advice of experts in medicine and public health and are very grateful to Sir Harry Burns for agreeing to chair our working group."
Sir Harry said: “The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic requires innovative and informed thinking. I am glad that the Catholic Bishops are acting proactively to develop Infection Control measures and delighted to be able to contribute to that work.”
“The reopening of churches and the reintroduction of public worship will happen in a phased way, always taking account of best infection control practice and guidelines on social distancing and hygiene.”
However, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley emphasised: “We are not going to ask for our churches to be open when we don’t think it is safe”.
Meanwhile, the Bishops’ Conferences of the UK and Ireland are working out ways to safely reopen churches with reduced congregations and no exchange of Peace once lockdown is eased.
Churches in the Republic of Ireland that can maintain social distancing are due to reopen for public services from 20 July, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced last Friday. They will also be allowed to hold small weddings, baptisms and other gatherings, but these will be limited to a small number of family and close friends observing social distancing.
The Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, has appealed to political leaders in Northern Ireland to allow churches to reopen for private prayer. The Archbishop of Armagh said in an interview with journalist Eamon Mallie: “We have had to close the doors of our churches in Northern Ireland, much to my annoyance, because I really think it is saying something when you close the door of God’s house.”
In a joint statement last weekend the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church and the Irish Council of Churches said that while they were not calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to remove the current general restrictions on gathering together for church services at this time, they were “asking that the issue is kept under regular review, so that when it is safe to do so there can be an easing of these restrictions.”
Churches should be opened for private prayer where this is desired locally and can be done safely, they told the Executive. Some churches in the Republic have remained open for private prayer throughout the lockdown.
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, who have permitted livestreaming of private prayer and Mass from parish churches throughout the lockdown, reiterated this week that their churches will remain closed to public worship and prayer until Government restrictions are lifted. In a statement following the annual Low Week meeting, which this year took place online, the five Metropolitan Archbishops of England said lockdown restrictions, which included the closure of churches, were put in place to stem the spread of the virus. The Catholic community should observe those restrictions to fulfil its role “in contributing to the preservation of life and the common good of society,” they wrote.
The Archbishops of Westminster, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff and Southwark acknowledged that livestreamed Masses and other devotions are "faith-affirming" but second best compared to worshipping in church.
“There is no substitute for Catholics being able to physically attend and participate in the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments. Our faith is expressed powerfully and beautifully though 'seeing, touching, and tasting'. We know that every bishop and every priest recognises the pain of Catholics who, at present, cannot pray in church or receive the sacraments. This weighs heavily on our hearts.
"As the Government’s restrictions are relaxed step by step, we look forward to opening our churches and resuming our liturgical, spiritual, catechetical and pastoral life step by step. This will also be of service to those beyond the Catholic Church who depend on our charitable activity and outreach through which much goodness is shared by so many volunteers from our communities".
The day before the bishops made their statement the Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, revealed that he had written to the Government to ask for churches to be prioritised. In a message on Twitter that was subsequently deleted, Bishop Egan said: “The Anglican Bishop of Portsmouth and I have today sent a joint letter to the Secretary of State imploring him to include our churches in the first wave of reopenigns after the COVID-19 lockdown. Oremus!”
The Archdiocese did not respond when asked why the Tweet was deleted.