From The Editor, THE TABLET, 25 April 2020
Worship Under Lockdown
Pressure on the British government to end the coronavirus lockdown is steadily growing, not least because every day it continues it inflicts a serious toll on the economy. The disruptions to everyday life it has caused also include the almost complete cessation of organised collective worship. Churches of every denomination, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and temples have all fallen quiet behind locked doors. This remarkable silence has happened with the blessing of the relevant religious authorities, who recognise that the deadly coronavirus can easily be transmitted wherever crowds may gather. “Thou shalt not kill” in this case translates as “Thou shalt not gather together in public”, which is a hard saying for people of faith whose main expression of it is through group activity.
Among those authorities are the leaderships of the Catholic and Anglican Churches. They have been criticised for it, but by and large their memberships have accepted the medicine while also looking for inventive ways to continue their religious observance. Online streaming of Mass from parish churches has been surprisingly successful in enabling congregations to join in the liturgy and participate spiritually if not in the flesh. The Church is more than a building. Take the building away, and the Church still exists.
These are among the reasons why the Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom should resist calls to press the government for an early release from lockdown so they could reopen their doors and resume normal church life. Proposals being studied by the government include a partial relaxation of the restrictions, perhaps starting with primary schools, which are thought to be infertile ground for the epidemic to spread. But for some weeks at least, the precautionary principle would counsel strongly against exempting places of worship from restrictions.
Perhaps more promising would be for the government to start moving from a compulsory form of lockdown to a more voluntary one. Compliance is already largely voluntary in effect, as the police cannot oversee every supermarket queue. Indeed, the government’s own behavioural scientists have been surprised by the willingness of the great majority of citizens to cooperate freely, once they saw the need. So it could become a matter for religious leaders themselves to decide what degree of lockdown to continue with in their own case, trusting in their common sense and their duty to the common good.
But caution is required. Lives are at risk. Removing the statutory obligation to keep church buildings closed would merely transfer a difficult call from the government to bishops and other faith leaders. The bishops would need to explain more fully than they have done so far why, as an expression of social responsibility and Christian charity, they might decide to continue to keep church doors locked. Meanwhile religious communities have been finding novel methods of connecting their members one with another. It is proving an exciting stimulus to new ways of being the Church: virtual worship, and worship alone or with our families, can be the real thing.