Our churches remain closed to private prayer even as the rest of society is opening up. This strikes me as wrong headed and scandalous. If people are free to visit garden centres, DIY shops, horse races and to congregate for protest in London, they must surely be free to enter a sanctuary to pray. To deny Christians this low risk right strikes me as veering close to totalitarian tyranny. Who are a government to stop the faithful from kneeling before God in the tabernacle if they should freely wish to take that risk?
Every closed church in Britain therefore begs questions. I hope they are pondered when the nation later reviews its response to this pandemic. What are the minimum requirements to ensure basic freedoms of religion? What does it say about the respect for faith as a nation that churches were so very low down in the list of priority? What are the limitations of state; to what extent should it be allowed to intrude on private lives, homes and businesses?
Let us cut the government some slack- they faced a challenging situation and an unknown menace when they first put us in lockdown. But let us also learn lessons from what worked and what did not. Power must be challenged fairly in a free and decent society. And a challenge certainly exists given the gravity of the situation we face post lockdown. And given the continued closure of houses of worship at a time when other things are now running as normal.
Which is to state protection of health is ONE serious consideration in answering such questions. But there are others too which have not been acknowledged or addressed thus far. Such questions will not go away I suspect. In fact they will likely grow louder because the initial projections on which the government acted have proven faulty meaning the virus, though dangerous, is not as catastrophic as first feared. And also because the lockdown itself wreaked untold havoc on our nations future health and prospects but cannot be proved to have saved us. Nations like Japan and South Korea, with no rigid lockdown but better track and testing, ultimately fared much better than the UK.
Fortunately bishops are now pushing for the re-opening of churches. Indeed our own Archbishop has written a first class letter to the Prime Minister highlighting the issues. So things are moving in the right direction and it seems likely the doors will open before too long. How then will this effect us in Pembury? What will parish life look like in the next phase?
At first we will only be allowed to open for private devotion not for public acts of worship. And churches will need to demonstrate an ability to adhere to social distancing in order to open at all. I am working to ensure this happens. Here then is how I envisage life in Pembury until we are again able to offer public worship.
At 9:30am each morning I shall offer Mass privately with doors closed. These services will be live streamed on our Facebook page as at present. As soon as Mass ends the sacrament will be placed on the high altar and doors will open. People will be able to enter for a limited period to pray privately. They will enter via the main door and leave via Sacred Heart Chapel exit. This will create a one way system allowing us to have a few more worshippers in church at any given time. At mid-day the sacrament will be returned to the tabernacle and church will be closed.
Understand that there will be no obligation to attend. If you feel at all anxious and wish to stay away this is absolutely fine. Your priests support that decision. And those at heightened risk from coronavirus would be wise to take this course. Please also avoid rushing in on the first day as this will cause chaos. Try and space your visit and be prepared to queue away from the main entrance which is also in use by the nursery. Finally if anyone is able to volunteer to clean and steward one morning a week then let me know. Watch this space for further news…
And rest assured that the short wait we now have before doors open isn’t going to waste. It is giving us time to restore Newman’s pews to past glory. Indeed today Chris Hoare and Robin are kindly removing old nails and cleaning and polishing. Your priests might even give consideration to your tender behinds and order some proper pew cushions…
UPDATE: The government has now announced that some churches can open from June 15th for private prayer.