By Mark Michael

Priests and bishops throughout the Church of England have been questioning the wisdom (or even the legality) of a directive from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that entirely banned clergy from entering their churches.

The directive is more restrictive than the civil government’s own guidance issued on March 25, which indicates that a “minister of religion” is permitted “to go to their place of worship, including to broadcast an act of worship to people outside the place of worship, whether over the internet or otherwise.”

But the archbishops’ letter from March 24 states: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own. A notice explaining this should be put on the church door. We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.”

The directive is also a change in course from the archbishops’ letter of a week before, which specifically urged clergy to keep their churches open for private prayer and to offer the Daily Office and the Eucharist regularly in them, while observing appropriate social distancing.

In a column in The Church Times, the Ven Edward Dowler, Archdeacon of Hastings in the Diocese of Chichester suggested that the directive violated canon law.  “In law,” he writes, “church buildings are vested in their incumbents, who, at their induction, take possession of the temporalities of the benefice. It is not clear that the bishops have any legal ability to issue apparent management instructions that incumbents should not pray in their churches. Legally speaking, this is a matter of conscience for individual clergy, in particular those who are incumbents.”

Dioceses within the Church of England are interpreting the directive in varied ways. In London, where the coronavirus outbreak has been most severe (The Daily Telegraph reports 8341 cases on April 1), the bishops of the Diocese of London, on the north bank of the Thames encourage clergy who live on church property “to pray in their churches privately and to consider whether they could live stream their services from within the church building.”  They noted that “many will find comfort, especially in uncertain times, in being part virtually of worship which is taking place in a church building.”

In the Diocese of Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames (but still very much within London), Bishop Christopher Chessun and his suffragans initially allowed the resident priest concession granted in London Diocese. But now they interpret the archbishops’ directive to the letter. “We know that this will seem especially hard for those of you who live next door to, or on the same site as, your church; but the Archbishops believe that it is right that we all share the challenges of these extraordinary times as equally as possible and conduct even private worship strictly in the confines of our own homes.”

The Rt. Rev. James Langstaff, bishop of the neighboring diocese of Rochester has even threatened disciplinary action against violating clergy, stating in an ad clerum letter, “I do need to say that for the clergy, failure fully to implement these arrangements could be deemed to be a disciplinary matter — it is that serious.”

In response to widespread questioning of the directive, the Archbishops issued a follow-up letter to the clergy on March 27, reasserting their former guidance. The two-page letter urged four times that the clergy should “stay at home, protect the NHS [National Health Service] and save lives.” They continued, “The Church of England is called to model the very best practice. We must lead by example. Staying at home and demonstrating solidarity with the rest of the country at this testing time, is, we believe, the right way of helping and ministering to our nation. Therefore, for a season, the center for the liturgical life of the church must be the home, not the church building.”

The restrictions on gathering a congregation for public worship have also opened up longstanding debates about whether clergy should be permitted to celebrate the Eucharist when a congregation cannot be present to receive. Private masses have generally been banned in the Church of England since the Reformation, with the rubrics of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer insisting “there shall be no Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be a convenient number to communicate with the Priest, according to his discretion.”

Bishop Martin Warner of Chichester authorized all of his clergy to celebrate the Eucharist privately during the time when public worship is not possible. In an ad clerum letter of March 26 he gave guidance about how to offer the Eucharist without a congregation. Warner also cited as instructive the Biblical parallel of Aaron and Moses entering the Tabernacle to intercede for the people of Israel in their time of need. [They] “go into the tent alone, in order to pray for the people. But the people are not passive. They go to the door of their dwellings as witnesses to this work. They stand in the presence of God with them: they watch, and they pray.”

Some have also expressed concern about the negative impact of shuttering church buildings completely in a time of widespread crisis. The bishops of London Diocese noted that church buildings in isolated settings could be subject to vandalism (a mounting problem throughout the country) if left unvisited for long periods of time. On March 26, the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops Council noted that “it may be reasonable for one designated person to enter the church to check that it remains safe and secure.”

Archdeacon Dowler noted an even greater potential danger to the church’s spiritual witness. He wrote, “It feels like a more Anglican approach to say that, while these buildings have been set apart for a particular purpose, their consecration is sustained by the offering of prayer and worship which continues to be made within them from day to day. Without this offering, the buildings will, in a very recognizable way, go cold. To some of their neighbors, empty and uninhabited churches will soon come to seem like spooky castles that haunt rather than illuminate their communities. To others (especially the many who will be quite unaware of the enormous pastoral and spiritual efforts being made at this time), closure will simply signify that the Church of England has shut up shop and abandoned people in their hour of need.