Letter to parishioners, 19 June 2020

Read a letter from Revd Stephen to parishioners explaining the background to the reopening of churches for private prayer. It is not a straightforward issue…

Friday, 19 June 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,

Since the national lockdown began in the middle of March all churches and other places of worship have been closed. The churches have even been closed to the clergy. The only people who have been able to enter our churches have been the churchwardens, who have been expected to execute their duty of care for our churches while the rest of us have been firmly locked out.

During the past three months there has been much debate about the closure of our churches. People have been understandably upset that during a time of national crisis the one place where they might want to sit and find peace and balance has been denied to them.

We have been repeatedly told that by closing our churches, and sacrificing that place of retreat and calm, we are playing our part in stopping the spread of the virus. Many people have disputed this. However, it is also a fact that a lot of those who would have appreciated some time in their local church have also been ‘required’ to self-isolate and shield because of age or medical vulnerability. The whole situation has become confused. This confusion has led to disappointment and anger. Then, came the announcement that many felt would bring all the confusion to an end.

It was widely heralded in the media that churches would be allowed to reopen for private prayer on Monday, 15 June. Even this was not straightforward though. In a public briefing the Prime Minister moved the goal posts, he announced that churches could open from Saturday, 13 June, two days earlier than expected. Alongside this, the House of Bishops (those who form the top tier of management in the Church of England) had shared various ‘possible’ strategies for reopening, but nothing final was available. The definitive guidance for clergy was delivered into most email inboxes at about 7pm on Friday, 12 June. That guidance ran to many pages of instructions, many of which were so specialised in nature that they had to be edited carefully for each local situation.

One thing that emerged was that the decision to, and responsibility for reopening a church or not lays solely on the shoulders of the parish priest. But, of course, this is certainly not a decision that any parish priest should be taking alone. Before the doors can be opened ‘deep cleaning’ is a vital requirement. Then a long risk assessment has to be completed and signed-off by the priest and churchwardens. Then the priest, the churchwardens and the Parochial Church Council have to accept responsibility for their role as managers of the venue. There is strict advice about stopping people praying together, the churches are only to reopen for private prayer. In fact, if I happened to be in the church and anyone else were to enter for a time of prayer I would have to leave, so that no one could accuse me of leading them in prayer. Also, when should the churches open? We are told that under no circumstances must churches be opened when people might normally expect there to be a service. This means no church should be open on a Sunday, for example. The list of instructions and regulations (which were clearly adapted from those issued for the reopening of shops) make it almost impossible for any church to be compliant. Then, finally, comes the uncertainty over how comprehensively churches would be insured during such extraordinary times.

I am desperate to reopen the churches in the Corby Glen Group of Parishes, but … how and when they can open remains an unknown. As you will gather from this letter, I have spent a great deal of time working through all that is being demanded of us. I am sorry that this means that our churches are all still locked, but I hope you can begin to see why. I am sure that there is a gloss that can be put on all this that makes it sound as though we have been given the privilege of returning to our churches, but we have not. Yes, we can go shopping, we can buy ourselves a new car, and we can visit a zoo, but, the conditions imposed upon us mean that our churches are still closed.

Another confusion that has arisen over the last few days comes from the public comments made about funerals and weddings. We are told that ‘small’ funerals can take place in our churches and that, in the not too distant future, ‘small’ weddings will also be able to take place. Again, I find myself having to say that this is not the case. Yes, I could conduct funerals in our churches, providing all of the preliminary work for reopening a church has been undertaken. As for weddings, it was only this week that we have been reminded by the House of Bishops that we are not allowed to conduct weddings under any circumstances. I am afraid that the reality of the hurt and disappointment goes on, no matter what you think you heard announced in recent days.

I urge you to continue in faithful prayer, as you have been during the last three months. Our website is still providing spiritual nourishment, and is being visited regularly by people who are using the resources we have created. I also pray that you will not lose heart. Our God is good; our God is loving; our God is bigger than any man-made restrictions that may be placed upon his worship. Let us go forward in good faith and prove that that faith is the biggest and most important thing in our lives.

With every blessing to you all,

Revd Stephen