By Mark Michael

The Church of England has suspended all public worship services until further notice, with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York inviting the faithful, in a joint letter of March 17, to look for new ways to serve their communities. They said that the current coronavirus pandemic could be a defining moment for the church, a time to face the question, “Are we truly a church for all, or just the church for ourselves?”

The letter was issued a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all public gatherings should cease and that vulnerable populations should prepare to isolate themselves from outside contact for the next twelve weeks. Similar measures are being taken by other churches throughout Europe this week, with the Vatican also announcing that Holy Week services would be closed to the public.

This may be first time all public worship has been suspended throughout the Church of England since 1215, when Pope Innocent III lifted a six-year general interdict , a suspension of all collective worship, he had imposed on the country for King John’s refusal to receive his nominee as Archbishop of Canterbury. While churches have been closed during wartime and epidemics in particular communities in the past, there is no modern precedent for a church-wide suspension of this kind.

The joint letter by Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu recommended that church be kept open as places of prayer, with social distancing measures observed. They also urged the clergy to say the daily office in church and offer a daily Eucharist “as an offering of prayer and praise for the nation and the world,” if this can be done safely. Services should be live-streamed when possible. Weddings and funerals, they said, may continue, as should ministries to those in need.

‘Our life is going to be less characterized by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterized by the prayer and service we offer each day,” the archbishops wrote.  “Please do carry on supporting the local foodbank and buy extra provisions for it. Ensure the night shelters wherever possible are kept open.  There are many very encouraging schemes happening right across our country in communities to focus on caring for the most vulnerable, so do continue to play your part in those. Then by our service, and by our love, Jesus Christ will be made known, and the hope of the gospel — a hope that will counter fear and isolation — will spread across our land.”

They designated Sunday, March 22, Mothering Sunday, as a “day of prayer and action,” and urged people throughout the country to place a lighted candle in the windows of their homes at 7:00 p.m. “as a sign of solidarity and hope in the light of Christ that can never be extinguished.”

According to The Guardian, The Methodist Church in Great Britain also announced the suspension of public services, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis announced that all synagogue services would be cancelled. The Muslim Council of Great Britain has advised mosques to suspend all congregational activities, including Friday prayers. The Catholic Church in England and Wales is allowing worship services to continue, but has imposed stringent measures to prevent the spread of infection. Several Catholic dioceses in the Republic of Ireland have cancelled all public worship.

As of March 18, 2626 people have been officially diagnosed with the coronavirus in England, which saw its first case on January 31. Health officials believe, however, that as many as 55,000 people may actually be infected, as tests have only been administered to people who have already been hospitalized in recent days. At least 71 people have died, including 14 in the last 24 hours. Schools will close in Scotland and Wales at the end of the week, but will remain open in England for now, though the prime minister announced that new guidance may soon be issued about this.

Similar measures are being implemented by religious communities in other parts of Europe. Catholic Churches in Slovakia and Belgium have canceled public worship, and Turkey has closed all 90,000 of its mosques. In Italy, where at least 2503 people have died of COVID-19, public celebrations of the Mass have been banned for several weeks, and churches were closed completely for a time, though these have been reopened in some places for private prayer.

On March 15, the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household announced that “because of the current global public health emergency, all the Liturgical Celebrations of Holy Week will take place without the physical presence of the faithful.” The ban on public gatherings for papal audiences in St. Peter’s Square, it also announced, will continue at least until April 12, Easter Day.

In a gesture aimed at encouraging private prayer, St. Francis visited Rome’s Church of San Marcello on March 15, to pray before a crucifix that was carried through the streets of the city in the sixteenth century to ward off an outbreak of the bubonic plague.

Some Eastern European churches have resolutely refused to curtail public worship, despite pleas from the secular authorities. The Catholic hierarchy in Poland has urged churches to increase the number of masses they offer to allow compliance with a government order restricting attendance at public gatherings to 50 people. One Polish archbishop urged the continued provision and use of holy water, saying, “Don’t be afraid to reach out for sacred water. Don’t be afraid of the church.” Polish church leadership had earlier taken a more strident posture against adjusting its practices, but shifted its approach after it was announced that Poland’s first coronavirus death was a priest’s aide who had been administering Holy Communion in church.

Civil authorities in Greece ordered the suspension of all religious gatherings on March 16, after the Orthodox Church’s ruling council refused to limit the practice of administering Holy Communion in both kinds, bread and wine. A statement issued a week earlier by the Holy Synod had denied that the coronavirus could be transmitted through the sacrament. “Faithful of all ages know that coming to receive the Holy Communion, even in the midst of a pandemic, is both a practical affirmation of self-surrender to the Living God and a potent manifestation of love,” it said.

Metropolitan Ignatius of Volos said that the church would continue to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to administer Holy Communion to the people, though the elderly should follow the advice of their physicians. “We cannot deprive the Holy Communion from anyone who wants to receive it, this can never stop. … We never got sick with a transmitted disease because of the Communion, that’s our experience.”