By Liz Dodd in THE TABLET, 25 June 2020

The Sunday obligation to attend Mass in England will not be reintroduced when public worship resumes on 4 July, the Metropolitan Archbishops said today in a statement outlining the “new normal” for liturgies as lockdown eases.

In a message to Catholics this morning Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, along with the Archbishops of Southwark, Liverpool and Birmingham warned that there will be a limit on the number of people allowed to attend services, and said that limit will be determined locally and based on social distancing requirements.

A significant number of churches will not reopen at the beginning of July because they cannot enforce regulations around social distancing and hygiene, they said.

Some Catholics – particularly those who are very vulnerable and still shielding – are asked to think seriously before they decide to attend church, and the Archbishops have asked parishes to continue to livestream Mass for those who need to remain at home.

All are asked to consider attending Mass on a weekday instead of a Sunday to help spread the number of congregants across the week. In addition there will be no singing, and Mass will be shorter.

The Prime Minister’s announcement this week that public worship could start from 4 July came as a surprise, given that the Government had previously said that church buildings would not be able to open at all until that date.

The earlier re-opening of churches for private prayer came after lobbying from Cardinal Vincent Nichols and health advisors to the Bishops’ Conference, and the resumption of Mass was expected to come much later.

The Prime Minister’s announcement means that England will resume public worship just after Ireland, where the Church had also successfully lobbied the Government for an earlier date.

The Metropolitan Archbishops’ message today reflected some of this surprise, noting: “Our lives have been changed by the experience of the pandemic and it is clear that we cannot simply return to how things were before lockdown.

“We remain centred on the Lord Jesus and His command at the Last Supper to ‘do this in memory of me.’ We must now rebuild what it means to be Eucharistic communities, holding fast to all that we hold dear, while at the same time exploring creative ways to meet changed circumstances.”

“Among those changed circumstances are the requirements around social distancing and regular cleaning and hygiene, to ensure that the risk of transmitting the virus remains as low as possible.

“Fulfilling these requirements is a precondition for any church opening after the 4 July for the celebration of Mass with a congregation,” the Archbishops wrote.

“We ask every Catholic to think carefully about how and when they will return to Mass. Our priests may need to consider whether it is possible to celebrate additional Masses at the weekends. Given there is no Sunday obligation, we ask you to consider the possibility of attending Mass on a weekday. This will ease the pressure of numbers for Sunday celebrations and allow a gradual return to the Eucharist for more people.

“Moving forward, there will still be many people who cannot attend Mass in person. We therefore ask parishes, wherever possible, to continue live-streaming Sunday Mass, both for those who remain shielding and vulnerable, and also for those unable to leave home because of advanced age or illness.

“When we return to Mass there will some differences in how the celebration takes place. For the time being, there will be no congregational singing and Mass will be shorter than usual. None of this detracts from the centrality of our encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist. We ask everyone to respect and follow the guidance that will be issued and the instructions in each church.”

The Archbishops said that the Church’s experience under lockdown, particularly at Easter, ”was unlike anything we have known”.

They thanked the Catholic community for “sustaining the life of faith in such creative ways”, noting in particular the work of families, priests who have live streamed Masses and supported their congregations from a distance, and chaplains.

They also paid tribute to the many charitable works that Catholics and their communities have undertaken during the pandemic.

“‘As I have loved you,’ said the Lord Jesus, ‘so you must love each other.’ (Jn 13:34) The lockdown has brought forth remarkable acts of charity, of loving kindness, from Catholics across our communities as they have cared for the needy and vulnerable.

“We have seen love in action through charitable works, and through the service of many front-line keyworkers who are members of our Church. Now we can begin to return to the source of that charity, Christ himself, present for us sacramentally, body, blood, soul and divinity, in Holy Communion. As we prepare to gather again to worship, let us, respectful of each other, come together in thanksgiving to God for the immense gift of the Holy Eucharist.”

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