By Melanie McDonagh in THE TIMES, 3 April 2020
Off-licences, allotments, churches. Which is the odd one out? Easy. Churches must remain closed on account of the pandemic. The first two are essential; the second, apparently, non-essential. Which is weird when we’re coming up for Holy Week, high point of the Christian year, when Christians are meant to accompany Christ to Jerusalem for the crucifixion and resurrection.
Except this year we can’t make for a church to mark the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. Or any other. We’ll be sitting at home instead listening to the St Matthew Passion, or toying with livestream options.
Yet originally the government’s lockdown guidelines said that churches should remain open for private prayer. That was before the Catholic Bishops’ Conference — and the Church of England took the same view — pointed out that people would go out of their way to visit churches and might even use public transport to get there. Professor Jim McManus, who advises the conference, observed that people might unknowingly leave virus traces on pews for the next visitor, maybe some poor homeless person with a health issue. So, far from being a benign thing to do, visiting a church might actually be a sin against charity.
It’s an oddly dispiriting and defeatist, if well-meant, view. Obviously it’s right to close churches for services, when numbers would attend, especially for Holy Week. But solitary prayer amounts to people kneeling or sitting before the altar, by themselves, spaced out. Before the churches shut their doors, I used to drop by and find perhaps one or two others at any time. It is quite feasible to make this a rule: perhaps that only up to four, or whatever, people can be there at a time, as churches in Ireland do and where the rule is respected.
If you want a belt and braces approach, leave out bits of chalk for people to mark the benches they’ve been sitting at, so they can be avoided by the next person and cleaned periodically by volunteers. Put out disposable gloves at the entrance so people don’t transfer a virus from their hands. Instruct them not to touch statues or light candles (Catholicism is an oddly touchy-feely thing). And during Holy Week keep some gauleiter parishioner at the door to turn excess numbers away. Instruct people that they must not use public transport to get there. Keep churches open until midnight to spread the numbers.
And if we did all these perfectly practicable things, and only if we did them, churches could be safe as well as holy places, at least no less safe than supermarkets or my allotment. Churches offer consolation and hope. We need that now.