By Patrick Kidd Friday in THE TIMES, 27 March 2020
If I were a clergyman, I would be able to walk out of the vicarage this morning and take a stroll as my government-prescribed exercise (“give us this day our daily tread”), raise my hat to parishioners from a safe distance of two metres, before popping into the off-licence for some port (“lead us not into tempt . . . oh, go on then”).
What I could not do, by order of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, is enter my own church. This apparently fails the risk assessment. “Our church buildings must now be closed for private prayer and this includes the priest,” their graces wrote to clergy on Tuesday.
We have reached this point by degrees. First, priests took sensible precautions themselves — no chalice, no shaking hands, no hymnals or Bibles that carry germs. Then the order came suspending public worship for the first time since 1208. The priest would celebrate mass alone but, outside those services, churches remained open for parishioners’ private prayer. It brought them comfort.
Many churches were innovative, posting videos of their solo services or the text of unspoken sermons online. Not for the first time, the word of God was communicated by tablets. Yet people still knew that even if they could not attend, their priest was praying for their safety and their souls in the very building where previous generations had sought deliverance. There is something reassuring about a church that a vicar’s settee cannot convey. It is perhaps why so many Catholic priests on the Continent continue to broadcast from their empty churches to the faithful. The old stones and beams that have seen so much whisper: “It will be all right”.
Now the gates of the Anglican temples have been closed. The archbishops say this is to “take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave to slow the spread of the coronavirus”, though few vicars have much of a commute. While supermarkets and filling stations can stay open, the clergy must stay at home, though I note that the Lord Bishop of Rochester was allowed to say prayers and speak in parliament on Wednesday. It seems that a priest can still perform his role in the House of Lords if not in the house of the Lord.
I’m sure the archbishops, in taking a step that was deemed unnecessary in earlier times of war and pestilence, acted with the best intentions but I fear for the consequences of their declaration that a priest praying in church for eternal salvation is no longer essential.
At a time of crisis when, as Christians are taught, a light should shine through the darkness, we should not extinguish that public demonstration of faith, duty and hope.