The Bishop of Shrewsbury has welcomed the Government’s announcement that churches can reopen after nearly three months of lockdown.
Bishop Mark Davies said the opening of churches for private and individual prayer from Monday 15th June represents the “first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments”.
“I very much welcome the long anticipated re-opening of our churches,” Bishop Davies said.
“I am delighted the government has recognised how the priority of prayer and worship are central to the common good and to the re-building of society after the lockdown.
“Every church stands as an invitation to pray and it was one of the most painful aspects of our national lockdown to see every church door locked and barred as people sought places of prayer and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
“The opening of church doors for private prayer will form a first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the sacraments.”
Bishop Davies said, however, that huge challenges remained “in ensuring that our churches remain safe places for all who to come to pray”.
He added: “It will require patient preparation and will depend on the generosity and training of volunteers in every community.
“However with teams of volunteers, safety resources and risk assessments in place we can look forward to seeing the great sign of churches once more with open doors.”
The announcement that churches can reopen for private prayer was made by the Government at the weekend.
Initially, the Government included churches as part of a group of higher risk public places alongside pubs, restaurants and theatres, which can only open from 4th July.
But Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, has repeatedly said that the reopening of places of worship was a priority for him.
His Department announced that the decision to reopen churches follows discussions between the Government and representatives of major faiths through the Places of Worship Taskforce which the Communities Secretary has chaired.
A statement said that the move ‘recognises the spiritual and mental health benefits for people being able to pray in their place of worship, and that for some people this cannot be replicated by praying at home’.
Government guidance is expected to be published this week to explain how churches can meet hygiene requirements, and is likely to recommend the thorough cleaning of shared spaces, hand cleansing at entry and exit and asking worshippers to bring their own liturgical texts rather than sharing those belonging to the churches.
Mass and other communal-led prayer will not be permitted, but the relaxation of restrictions will mean greater opportunities for access to Confession.
Mr Jenrick said: “Ensuring places of worship can open again, beginning with individual prayer has been my priority.
“Their contribution to the common good of our country is clear, as places of solace, comfort, stability and dignity. And the need for them is all the greater as we weather the uncertainties of the pandemic.”
He continued: “I’m pleased this can now happen from 15 June. As Communities Secretary I have worked with faith leaders and representatives to prepare guidance that ensures this can be done safely.
“People of all faiths have shown enormous patience and forbearance, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Ramadan or Vaisakhi with friends and family in the traditional way. As we control the virus, we are now able to move forwards with a limited, but important return to houses of worship.”
Faith Minister Lord Greenhalgh said the reopening was “the first step in places of worship reopening fully, when the science supports it”.
“I look forward to continuing to discuss with the Taskforce how to address ongoing practical safety issues in the coming weeks,” he said.
“Places of worship still have discretion over when they consider it safe to open and may decide to remain closed or reopen at a slower pace if they wish.”
He added: “Under the existing regulations, funerals are allowed in places of worship where it is possible to do so safely. Other gatherings and services such as baptisms, weddings, supplementary schools, meetings and classes are not permitted.
“Also places of worship may open for ministers of religion to film or record a service for broadcast, for the hosting of essential voluntary activities such as homeless services, for registered early years and childcare providers and for blood donation sessions. Buildings should also remain closed to tourists.
“The guidance will be available shortly. Faith leaders should carry out a risk assessment of the place of worship and tailor this guidance as appropriate for the venue and practices being carried out. This will be in addition to any risk assessment already in place.
“Individual prayer within a place of worship is defined as a person or household entering the venue to pray on their own and not as part of a group, led prayer or communal act. They should be socially distanced from other individuals or households.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops’ Conference, said he was grateful to Mr Jenrick, Lord Greenhalgh and Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, for agreeing to reopen churches.
He said the move was an important and “first, measured step in restoring the more normal practice of our faith and will be welcomed by so many, who have waited with great patience since 23 March when our churches were closed, by Government decision, as part of the fight against this pandemic”.
“I thank everyone for that patience,” said Cardinal Nichols. “It is important that every care is taken to ensure that the guidance given for this limited opening is fully observed, not least by those entering our churches. Our preparation is taking place with thoroughness. Visiting a church for individual prayer, benefitting from the sacredness of that space, can be done safely and confidently.
“Not every Catholic church will be open on 15th June. Local decisions and provision have to lead this process. But it is a great blessing, for individuals and for the benefit of all in society that church doors will again be open to all who long to pray there for the peace and grace we need today.
“This first step enables us to learn and prepare for those that will take us to a fuller use of our churches, for the celebration of Mass and other sacraments. We await that time with deep longing but patient understanding that the protection of the health of our society, especially of the most vulnerable, is a proper cause for caution and care.”
Picture: The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies. (Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk).