Open-air Masses are being considered as part of plans to help people to start attending worship again in the coming weeks.
Last week Cardinal Vincent Nichols was among faith leaders who met government representatives as part of a faith task force to discuss the current lockdown and how people of faith can use their buildings again. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that places of worship could reopen by July 4.
With safety in mind, plans being discussed within the Catholic Church include organising open-air Masses. But all options for prayer and worship as Britain eases lockdown will need an army of volunteers to help keep people safe.
The Government’s task force has agreed that re-opening might be phased and on Tuesday this week Cardinal Nichols confirmed that opening Catholic Churches for private prayer is likely to be the first stage. Speaking at an online briefing organised by the Religion Media Centre he said that: “The representatives of the Government at the task force meeting really appreciated the depth of feeling about the lack of access to religious buildings. Opening churches for private prayer is important for Catholics. It is a response to a spiritual need and it is a project step for greater openings”.
And he said that Catholics will be needed to get the churches to open safely and hygienically and supervise them while open.
“We need volunteers and to train them,” he said.
Open-air Masses are being discussed by some priests and bishops together with public health bodies as safe option because the coronavirus spreads more easily in confined space indoors than in the open air.
Among those keenest to organise open-air Masses is Bishop Mark O’Toole of the Diocese of Plymouth which has many rural churches.
“There are problems even if you have social distancing in small churches,” said Bishop O’Toole. “We are looking at places where we could use a large space, have parking, plenty of social distancing, and accessibility.”
Some options might be schools’ playgrounds, he said, but he is also considering Buckfast Abbey, a retreat centre in the Teignmouth Valley, and an amphitheatre in Cornwall.
“It is an awful thing to have to consider about Mass but if we go down this route, we might have to have ticketing so that we can control numbers for health reasons,” he said.
Other places that could be used for open-air Masses include the Carmelites’ Aylesford Priory in Maidstone, Kent, which has substantial land, and has often organised open air Masses for pilgrims.
Its prior Fr Francis Kemsley said: “We are indeed thinking of having open air masses as long as we follow the agreed guidelines. We are very fortunate to have the open air shrine that can seat 2,000 people. We would not expect that many but there will be plenty of space for social distance.”
Jim McManus, the director of public health for Hertfordshire County Council and public health adviser to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said: “Church closures should only be temporary – but at the moment gatherings are still banned in England and other countries. The World Health Organisation’s studies show that such closures for mass religious events could help avoid transmission of the coronavirus.”
“Open-air Mass, speaking purely in terms of transmission risk, is a good idea but the requirements would be, can you hold it safely away from traffic and can you have good hygiene and social distancing to stop viral spread.
“A range of public health agencies are looking at how we could make open air gatherings safe and as part of this open air worship is definitely being considered across multiple faiths.”