St Bridget’s Church in Baillieston, Glasgow, Scotland (ANSA)

By Lisa Zengarini

Jan 11 2021

An exponential rise in Covid-19 infections has led to a third lockdown in the United Kingdom where it has been decided to keep churches open in England and Wales, but closed in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The decision by the British Government not to close places of worship during the new National Lockdown is based on the recognition that churches in the Country are safe and that the service they offer is essential, a British Church official has explained.

Britain entered its third National Lockdown on January 5. However, this time, churches in England and Wales have been allowed to stay open for prayer and communal worship, in spite of pressures from many local authorities to close them and the Scottish First Minister’s decision to do so. Following questions from many people about the reasons for keeping churches open, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster John Sherrington, issued a letter on January 8 explaining the position and role of churches during the on-going crisis.

Role and contribution of churches 

The letter states that their safety has been affirmed by Public Health England (PHE) in its current advice to the Government. “This is publicly recognised to be the result of the great efforts made by many people in the implementation of procedures mandated by PHE and thereby establishing the necessary conditions within churches for their safe use”, Bishop Sherrington writes.

The letter then goes on to explain that churches are making a “significant contribution to the personal resilience and inner strength of people which is much needed at this time”. “Many are hubs from which essential support is offered especially to those most in need, extending well beyond the faith communities which use them.

This includes the regular provision of food; the care of the homeless; and being a place of peace and reflection (which is safe) for many whose living conditions are very limited”, he says, assuring that during the vaccination campaign “churches will exercise their role with increased diligence to ensure continuing safety and service”.

“Our clergy will ensure that all are aware that there is no duty or responsibility to come to church and communicate to all there is no obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. They will review, in each local area, the provision offered by the church in order to ensure that the highest standards of safety are maintained”, he adds.

While recognising the “higher levels of fear and anxiety which the new strain of the virus has prompted” and the need of extra precautions against the infection, the letter finally reminds about the “profound detrimental effect” on people of the social isolation imposed by the lockdown and that “the role of churches in easing that isolation in ways which are safe and supportive has been recognised as a positive and beneficial contribution to the common good”.

Scottish FM’s decision

The decision to keep churches open in spite of the new National Lockdown hasn’t been unanimous in the United Kingdom. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has decided to close them from January 8 to February 1 and has been strongly criticized for this by the local bishops, who have termed the measure as “arbitrary and unfair”. In a statement, they note that it is in stark contrast to the decision by the UK Government to recognise “the essential contribution of public worship to the spiritual welfare of all citizens”. According to the Scottish Bishops, “no evidence has been forthcoming to justify the inclusion of places of worship as sources of infection”.

The situation in Northern Ireland

On the other hand, Bishops of Northern Ireland have opted otherwise. In the light of the continuing escalation of numbers in hospital and intensive care units, the number of associated deaths and the increasingly unsustainable pressure on healthcare staff in the region, the bishops have decided the celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgies should take place without the physical presence of the faithful – with the exception of marriage, funeral, baptismal liturgies and drive-in services (subject to regulations), from 7 January until 6 February.

In their statement, Northern Ireland bishops say they have taken this decision “reluctantly, conscious that not being able to gather for public worship can cause pain for all the faithful, but in the hope that this limited period of sacrifice will be for the protection of life and health and for the greater good of all”. A similar position has been taken by the leaders of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland and many other denominations and faith communities. – Vatican News