It’s somehow not that surprising to find that the Bishop of London has gone on Twitter to suggest that churches should consider closing. Sarah Mullally wrote:
'The situation is serious in @dioceseoflondon do read the request from @londoncouncils and consider the seriousness of the situation as you take your local decisions.'
Well, thanks for that. Her observation is plainly intended to push for closures; it’s the only possible way of interpreting her contribution. And duly, she led the news this morning. She’s following Sadiq Khan here, mayor of London, who, when he declared a state of emergency yesterday, called for places of worship to close.
It’s one thing for a politician to want to be seen to be closing things down; quite another for a senior member of the Anglican hierarchy. But then Mullally is a former chief nursing officer and it’s surely the nurse who’s speaking here, not an actual cleric, even if you accept the validity of her orders.
Because what she doesn’t do, and neither does the Mayor, is provide evidence for the desirability of church closures. The church I attend is probably the safest space I go to outside my own home. You’re masked and sanitised as you go in; you sit in designated spaces that are cleaned after you leave; the space in the church is deployed rationally to separate the congregation; there’s no singing; there’s no physical contact between priest and communicant when it comes to communion; you’re tracked and traced; you leave by a different door; the readers are gloved. In some churches you have to reserve your place for mass in advance.
What more, in heaven’s name, does the mayor want? What more does Sarah Mullally think churches should do? God knows, an awful lot of the churches in her dioceses aren’t embarrassed by a superfluity of numbers; it’s up to her to remind individual parishes to be vigilant and there’s no evidence they aren’t acting responsibly.
Fortunately, the Catholic bishops are being more combative this time round – and I’m not trying to be sectarian here. The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, pointed out that:
'There is no evidence that Churches are places where infection is spreading. We will continue to abide by the public health guidance and work with government to ensure the continued safety of all who come to our churches for prayer and public worship.'
And Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster went further. He observed that
'Our 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. This will become more appreciated as the programme of vaccination increases. The vital link between prayer and action is important to maintain this service.'
In other words, churches, as places for prayer and worship, play a part in maintaining our mental and spiritual health. They are places of refuge. They are not just safe spaces; they are essential spaces and the first lockdown was more wretched than it should have been because they were unnecessarily closed.
P.S. To the objection that people hang around after church in groups, thereby making for non-social distancing, I can only offer the example of my own parish. At the end of mass, the priest told us not to congregate outside, and said that none of the clergy would be outside church themselves, where they'd normally chat with parishioners. So clergy really are trying to diminish risky behaviour. Inside the church, it's way more rigorously policed than any supermarket.