We need churches more than ever right now - should they stay open?

Church is closed sign. Cancellation of church services because of coronavirus outbreak. Church and R

Churches should stay open, says James Marston, especially as so much effort has taken place to make them safe amid the coronavirus outbreak - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I’ve been troubled this week and find myself torn between a rock and a hard place.

As many of you will know I am a clergyman in the Church of England and a fairly newly minted priest. This latest lockdown doesn’t include the closure of communal worship – it remains, at the moment, legal for church services on a Sunday to take place. Yet for many parish churches – so often with an elderly and therefore vulnerable congregation – have decided to go one step further than government restrictions and close the doors.

The doors of churches across our region have been closed for the foreseeable, undeniably for reasons sensible and timely. But the closure of the churches has left me, and others, somewhat concerned.

Obviously I don’t think that anyone wants the churches closed. This right of freedom of worship is one we all hold dear, whether churchy or not, and indeed that freedom and the importance of church worship to so many has been recognised and upheld by government so far.

Yet the fear and spread of coronavirus must be weighed up against the removal of what is a lifeline to so many, particularly perhaps those who live alone, and a source of much-needed hope and upliftment in tricky times. And without communal worship it is increasingly harder to sustain spiritually those caring for the vulnerable in our communities as an expression of their faith. In any other circumstances it would be inconceivable that the churches would close themselves.

And it is not as if huge efforts have been taken to ensure churches are safe and the risks minimised. Indeed the decision by the government’s decision to keep churches open recognises that churches offer a Covid-safe place where the risk of transmission is low, as well as a recognition that communal worship has huge benefits to health, particularly mental health.

But many churches have closed, often citing the safety of those who come. Where I am troubled is that I worry church communities are in danger of reacting a little too quickly – perhaps understandably in the wake of fear and the latest headlines – and could be making decisions on behalf of others who are perfectly able to assess their own risks and make their own decisions. Isn’t that the job of the government not the church?

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Yet as one clergy friend put it to me when I raised this point: “We have a duty of care to ensure their safety, we have no choice but to close to keep them safe. Many of them shouldn’t even be there.”

It is a powerful argument and I see and accept the point but I can’t help also thinking that churches need to be open now, perhaps more than ever. You can see the dilemma.

On Sunday, as part of my sermon I spoke about the signs of joy and hope we can all find if we take the trouble and time to look. I know that churches will reopen again and these are just temporary measures, and I know there’s more to faith than just Sunday worship, but closing churches troubles me nonetheless.

In the meantime I’m going to leave you with a poem that I used in my Sunday sermon and thought I might share with you today.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East."

What do you think? Has your church reluctantly closed? Should places of worship remain open? Write to James at james.marston@archant.co.uk

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