04 June 2020, The Tablet

Church leaders turn on Government over church closures

Church leaders turn on Government over church closures

A woman prays at the closed doors of Westminster Cathedral.
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

Churches are “at the back of the queue” for reopening after lockdown, according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, as impatience is growing among churchgoers that the Government is keeping church buildings closed while other public places are being allowed to unlock their doors. 

The Cardinal made his complaint on Sunday, the same day that a survey revealed that half of all people want churches re-opened as soon as possible, with the figures rising to 66 per cent of churchgoers. 

During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, Cardinal Nichols said: “The importance of faith is not being understood or imagined. It looks like the economy is being put first.” 

Churches and other places of worship, including synagogues and mosques, have been shut since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown on March 23. Since then, Mass has been livestreamed from many churches, with high numbers of people watching online from their homes. Public health advisers recommended that it was safe for a priest to celebrate Mass on his own in church, while the Church of England went further for the first few weeks of lockdown and stopped priests from even entering their own buildings. At the time of writing, the Government was still saying churches could not open before 4 July, when they would be among the last public buildings to open, along with pubs and cinemas. 

But concern about the impact on communities of locked churches has grown. The survey released on Sunday and carried out by Savanta ComRes for the National Churches Trust revealed that three quarters of churches said that closing has had a negative effect on their communities, with not only services curtailed but also many vital welfare organisations that use church buildings not able to do so. Church revenues have also been dramatically cut. 

The survey also showed that almost half the public think that churches’ most important role once they are re-opened is to provide a place where those who have died of Covid-19 can be remembered, and 44 per cent of the public thought their second most important use was as a place of private reflection and prayer. 

Claire Walker, chief executive officer of the National Churches Trust, said: “Our survey shows that the public would back moves to open churches and chapels sooner than July, if they are able to maintain social distancing”. 

Cardinal Nichols expressed his frustration that by 15 June, he will be able to enter a bookshop opposite Westminster Cathedral, but people won’t be able to visit the church. “That is provocative to me,” he said. “If this is a political judgement it is very disappointing and shows limited ideas about society. Society is made up of local communities and at the heart of them are churches and other places of worship”. 

Archbishop of Southwark John Wilson has written to the Prime Minister asking for churches to open, complaining that keeping them closed for private prayer “in an infringement of both religious freedom and equity”. 

Among others who have also expressed frustration are a group of 20 Conservative MPs who wrote to the Prime Minister. The letter, organised by Sir Peter Bottomley, said: “It seems odd that you can go for a walk, enter a busy supermarket, get on a bus, but cannot go to a large virtually-empty-for-much-of-the-time building.”

Priests are finding ways of helping people access Mass. St Peter’s Church in Hove has organised socially distanced Masses for up to five people in gardens. 

In Northern Ireland, the executive has allowed churches to re-open for private prayer. 

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