We are living in dangerous and uncertain times. Pandemics always threaten society and have always been survived at terrible cost not beaten. No matter what option is taken there will be suffering and death. That is what pandemic brings to the party. So one can understand those whose first instinct is to be cautious and to encourage lockdown to minimise risk.
When lockdown began I shared a belief that it was wrongheaded for places of worship to be classed, alongside pubs and cinemas, as part of the non-essential services. I felt, and still believe, we should have been placed amongst the essential services, like supermarkets, off-licences and bin collections. I worry about the message locked churches transmit to the world. I worry that, for the first time in history, the church is not at the forefront of crisis but being pushed, wilfully or not, to the outer margins.
In obedience to the hierarchy, and because we were told enforced closure was for three weeks only, I kept doors closed and bit my tongue. Live streamed mass became the norm and pastoral care occurred by phone. But now the three weeks are over and the lockdown is extended. Government ministers no longer talk of ‘flattening the curve’ so much as ‘beating this virus’. Is it time to review protocols? Time to urge bishops to think again How long should churches remain closed? Days, weeks, months, years? How long should we deprive those commanded to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ from being able to do it at all?
The answer will not be easily arrived at. As with everything related to this horrid virus at present anyone can weigh in with AN answer but none can provide THE answer. Because, without widespread testing, we simply do not know how widespread or deadly the virus is. And that means the few stats we have are easily manipulated in favour of a desired outcome. Until clarity is possible expect the left to lean towards big state solutions and provision and the right to resist and expect all to pick and choose data to support arguments.
That is the lay of the land for the world at present, but what about the church? When the Pandemic ends people will rightly applaud the health service, cleaners, shop workers and refuse collectors for having been there for them regardless of what direction is taken. What will they say about the church? This needs to be answered if we are not to lose further credibility.
My own hope and suggestion is that the leadership of the church starts showing a little more imagination than at present. Could we not find creative solutions to ensure people have access to the sacraments without taking unnecessary risk? The supermarkets managed to come up with innovative solutions – like screens and one way traffic flow, why can’t places of worship?
Imagine if Sunday obligation was dropped for the duration of this pandemic so that nobody was forced to attend church. This way anyone who is worried can stay home safe. Then imagine if we held two or three services a day, six on Sunday, with congregations of less than 25 present (or more in very large buildings). Your slot could be booked online or by phone to ensure no others turned up. And people could space sensibly once inside and maintain proper distancing protocols. This is just one idea which surely wouldn’t endanger people any more than at present? The frail and vulnerable could watch these services streamed but those willing to take a small risk could be present.
There are other ideas, like drive through confession or confession behind air tight screens, that are worth pursuing. But it strikes me that simply closing the doors and doing nothing is a recipe for long term disaster. Is it not time for us to seek creative solutions in the face of crisis?
Finally I want to assure the hierarchy of my prayers. It is a difficult time for them as well as us. In this parish we are fortunate to have an excellent Ordinary and excellent Archbishop. I hope they, and any other senior figures reading this, take it in the spirit intended; which is not to criticise but to encourage creative solutions. And I do appreciate those reaching different conclusions to myself could be right and, even if wrong, are attempting to work in our best interest. I shall not rebel but I do want to question and challenge in love…