The Catholic Church will tomorrow meet with the Government to discuss the re-opening of churches for private prayer, along with representatives from other faith communities.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that he intended to ask ministers to be more sensitive to matters of faith, after places of worship were ranked alongside cinemas and hairdressers in the Government’s rebuilding schedule, that would see them reopen on 4 July at the earliest.
He called for “differentiated thinking” around reopening, that takes into account faith communities' disparate practices.
“Private, personal individual prayer in a Catholic church is not something that is much done in Pentecostal churches, which tend to concentrate on big gatherings, and it's not what's done in mosques where people pray side by side,” he said.
The Church has already submitted a plan, that has been agreed with Public Health England, to outline how churches can safely reopen for private prayer sooner than the Government’s proposed deadline. Yesterday the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, said during a public briefing that plans were underway that could facilitate, “potentially, private prayer being able to be carried out earlier than July 4."
The plans the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has outlined would see buildings reopen for individuals to come to kneel and say their prayers, while observing social distancing. Stewards would support the process and deep clean the site after every opening.
“Private, quiet space for individual prayer helps people's inner stability, and the faiths are a terrific motivators for aspects of the service that are given in society today,” he said. “Within a mile of here there are two Catholic institutions that feed 300 people every day - and that is motivated, in a good part, by their faith.”
He hoped that the Government’s taskforce would consider the nuances of what religious communities need, and when.
“If I could use the analogy of sport: at the moment it's okay to play tennis with your family, in a bit it will be okay to have a kick around with your mates in the park. It'll be quite a time before we can go to formal football matches. It's all sport, but we need to differentiate to make things safe.”
He paid tribute to priests’ and lay peoples’ creativity when it came to livestreaming services, but said that the Catholic community has undertaken a long and painful fast from the Sacraments during the pandemic, cutting them off from explicit moments of contact with the Lord.
“It's a fast for us, it's quite a painful fast, and that's true for other faiths. I was talking to four Imams yesterday and they would say the same. Think of the patterns of Ramadan and the sacrifice of the Muslim community is making by never meeting outside their families during Ramadan, and at the end, at the big feast. So there is a great deal of deep spiritual sacrifice being made and okay, we're willing, but we want to know there were appreciated and sensitivities are recognised and that we have these opportunities to open up - safely and step by step.”
The news comes as bishops in England and Wales criticised the Government for delaying the re-opening of places of worship.
The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies, said government officials had relegated “spiritual need” to a “dimension of the leisure industry”.
“We appreciate that churches as public buildings and places of public gathering will require rigorous safety measures during the various stages of their re-opening first for private prayer and then for the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments.
“However, it would represent a false understanding of the human person to develop a public policy driven by the need to re-start the economy and some limited leisure and commercial facilities such as garden centres while requiring all churches to remain closed.”
The Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, said on Twitter: “I’m delighted to hear tonight that our churches might soon (safely) reopen, at least for private prayer as a first stage. Let’s keep praying earnestly to the LORD for this intention.”
An online petition asking the Government to reopen churches has attracted more than 5000 signatures.