The Church of England has revised its official coronavirus guidance to close all of its church buildings with immediate effect after the Government ordered a countrywide lockdown.
It comes a day after London bishops decided to close church buildings across the capital to help limit the spread of coronavirus.
Until now, public worship had been suspended at Church of England churches but the buildings had been permitted to stay open for individuals wishing to come in for private prayer.
In some churches and cathedrals, clergy had continued to hold daily prayers and many had livestreamed Sunday services over the weekend in the absence of congregations who instead tuned in from home.
However, the guidance makes clear that this can no longer continue, and that even priests must stay away and livestream any services from their homes.
The only churches that will be permitted to open are those that are required to run food banks out of.
The changes mean that weddings are off the table, while funerals will still be allowed to go ahead but not inside the church building. The only baptisms to take place under the lockdown will be emergency baptisms in a hospital or home.
The updated guidance from the Church of England has been laid down in a letter to clergy from the archbishops and bishops.
It follows the announcement on Monday night of wideranging social distancing measures preventing people from leaving their homes for all but exceptional reasons, like going to buy essentials.
"These are unprecedented times. We are all having to get used to being the Church differently," the bishops write.
"It is not easy. However, our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning (though we long for the day when this way of knowing Christ can return) but by the service we offer to others.
"Therefore, and despite these very harrowing restrictions, please do all that you can to minister to your people safely, especially to the sick, the vulnerable and the poor."
The letter goes on to call on Church of England clergy to set a good example in following official social distancing guidelines.
"We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus," it reads.
"We must also do all that we can to provide resources and support for those who are isolated, fearful and vulnerable.
"But we have to do this from our homes."
The Church of England aired its first national virtual service last Sunday, with at least five million people tuning in via social media or local BBC radio broadcasts.
This virtual service will continue, the Church said.
The bishops add: "It is also imperative that as the Church of Jesus Christ, called to offer hope and light in the darkness of this world's ills, we maintain a praying presence for our community, though from today onwards this must happen from our hearts and from our homes.
"Our Church buildings are closed but the Church must continue to support and encourage our communities making use of telephones and other forms of technology to keep in touch with people and ensure pastoral care is maintained, and as shepherds of Christ's flock we are committed to making this happen."
On specific questions the bishops make clear that:
- Emergency baptisms can take place in hospital or at home, though subject to strict hygienic precautions and physical distancing as far as possible.
- Funerals can only happen at the crematorium or at the graveside.
- Only immediate family members can attend, defined as a spouse or partner, parents and children – all maintaining a physical distance.
- Live streaming of a service is still permissible from homes and clergy are encouraged to be as creative as possible with streaming services and other resources.
- Foodbanks should continue where possible under strict guidelines and may have to move to be delivery points, not places where people gather.