Last night, when the Prime Minister made his address to the nation he declared that places of worship would be closed – thereby putting churches on the same basis as outdoor gyms. Today a statement from the Ministry for Communities clarified that churches should stay open, for private prayer. All good, Catholics like me thought. We can sit at the back of the church, in the presence of the sacrament, and say a few prayers. Yesterday I dropped into my parish church and I found one other person there, a young man kneeling before the altar, as I’d found him the day before – an oddly moving sight. On Sunday there were all of three of us in there, sitting not so much at a social distance as an anti-social distance, at other ends of the church.
So why has the Catholic Bishops’ Conference advised the Government to close churches and instructed its own parishes to do so? According to the statement here from the bishops, the trouble is that 'the very fact of [churches] being open could draw people out of their homes.' Moreover, 'open churches will only tempt people to travel'. The expert cited by the church is one Prof Jim McManus, a public health adviser for Hertfordshire County Council. After he pointed out this gravitational pull of churches, the Government may now revoke the bit of its guidance which allowed solitary prayer and bar Christians from even sitting quietly in a pew. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the church in England and Wales, has issued a passionate statement to the effect that 'closing churches is the right thing to do to save lives'.
I like Cardinal Nichols. But I don’t think he’s right on this one. For Catholics in particular, being able to sit before the sacrament in a church isn’t just a leisure activity; it’s not a walk in the park; it’s fundamental to everything else you do. It’s to do with the doctrine of the Real Presence, which I can go on about if you’ll just drop that hat.
But in terms of the virus, is it safe? Well, yes. Once the bishops brought collective acts of worship on Sundays and holy days to an end, people didn't come in numbers to church. Most churches, like my own parish, probably get just a couple of people at any one time. Catholics are, for better or worse, pretty biddable; like most Christians, they have a sense of civic duty. So if you tell us that we may not travel to church by public transport, that we can only come if we walk, that’s what we’ll do. And if there’s a huge big notice on the door advising people that they should either use gloves on the doors, or the tissues provided, they’ll do that too. As for the temptation to break out of our homes and make for the church (my local is across the road), thereby flouting the instruction to stay put, why, we’re allowed one bit of exercise a day (did you ever think we’d be writing that?), so why shouldn’t we use that opportunity to say our prayers while we’re at it?
Closing the churches is a disproportionate response to a government policy which was, actually, pretty okay. Allowing solitary prayer isn’t a danger to public health, if it’s done sensibly. God knows the bishops don’t normally have to beat people out of the churches; this isn’t the time to start.