The Archbishop of Westminster has welcomed the decision by prime minister Boris Johnson to allow churches to reopen for private prayer on 15 June.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who along with leaders of other churches has been lobbying behind the scenes and publicly for a cautious relaxation of lockdown, said he was “grateful” for the development, made on the advice of a government's Covid-19 task force.
He said: “This is a first, measured step in restoring the more normal practice of our faith and will be welcomed by so many, who have waited with great patience since 23 March when our churches were closed, by Government decision, as part of the fight against this pandemic.
“I thank everyone for that patience. It is important that every care is taken to ensure that the guidance given for this limited opening is fully observed, not least by those entering our churches. Our preparation is taking place with thoroughness. Visiting a church for individual prayer, benefitting from the sacredness of that space, can be done safely and confidently.”
Not every Catholic church will reopen on 15 June. “Local decisions and provision have to lead this process,” the cardinal said. “But it is a great blessing, for individuals and for the benefit of all in society, that church doors will again be open to all who long to pray there for the peace and grace we need today.”
He described it as a “first step” towards eventual fuller use of the churches, for celebration of Mass and other sacraments. “We await that time with deep longing but patient understanding that the protection of the health of our society, especially of the most vulnerable, is a proper cause for caution and care.”
While larger gatherings such as family or any other types of services, including weddings, will not be permitted until 4 July at the earliest, from 15 June, churches can open for individuals to visit for private prayer and reflection.
Many Catholic priests and bishops have been livestreaming Mass from their churches and cathedrals since lockdown began.
The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: “Ensuring places of worship can open again, beginning with private prayer by individuals has been my priority. Their contribution to the common good of our country is clear, as places of solace, comfort, stability and dignity. And the need for them is all the greater as we weather the uncertainties of the pandemic.
“I’m pleased the prime minister has announced that this is expected to happen from 15 June. As communities secretary, I have worked with faith leaders and representatives to prepare guidance that ensures this can be done safely.
“People of all faiths have shown enormous patience and forbearance, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Ramadan or Vaisakhi with friends and family in the traditional way.
“As we control the virus, we are now able to move forwards with a limited but important return to houses of worship.”
A Number 10 spokeswoman said: “The prime minister recognises how important it is, at this unprecedented time, for people to have the space to reflect and pray, to connect with their faith, and to be able to mourn for their loved ones.
“The PM is so grateful to people of all faiths and none, who have followed the social distancing guidelines, and in doing so, protected their communities.
“We plan to open up places of worship for individual prayer in a safe, Covid-secure way that does not risk further transmission.”
Bishop of Shrewsbury Mark Davies said the opening of churches for private and individual prayer represents the “first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments”.
He said: “I very much welcome the long anticipated re-opening of our churches.
“I am delighted the government has recognised how the priority of prayer and worship are central to the common good and to the re-building of society after the lockdown.
“Every church stands as an invitation to pray and it was one of the most painful aspects of our national lockdown to see every church door locked and barred as people sought places of prayer and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
“The opening of church doors for private prayer will form a first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the sacraments.”
Faiths United, a coalition set up to respond to the pandemic, described it as a “positive first step”. The group said in a statement: “We welcome the reopening of places of worship in England for individual prayer. It reflects recognition by the government of their importance for the nation’s spiritual well-being, alongside our health and our wealth.
“The health and safety of our congregations has always been our priority but it allows people of faith access again to their cherished churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras and other places of worship. Since lockdown started, we have missed our places of worship, particularly during a busy period of religious festivals.
“We understand that the re-opening has to be phased and gradual, as public health is paramount. Individual prayer is much more relevant to some faiths than others, for whom collective prayer is their mode of worship.”