Church was right to be strict in coronavirus response, says Archbishop of York

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell

The Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell has defended the Church of England's response to the first national lockdown last year and the order to churches to close.

When the country first went into lockdown in March 2020, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Cottrell's predecessor John Sentamu wrote to parishes ordering the closure of churches. 

The instructions from the top forbade not only members of the public from entering churches but even clergy from going into their buildings to pray on their own. 

"We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus," the letter said at the time. 

"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." 

Cottrell told The Telegraph that there was some disappointment among Anglicans but that he took issue with the suggestion "that a lot of people were disappointed".

"'I'm not pretending we didn't get some things wrong, but I think the mitigating circumstances of the shock going into lockdown – many organisations didn't really know what to do," he said. 

The Archbishop also denied that priests were being made redundant, saying that dioceses were being "reorganised", and he defended a chief executive job advertised in his former diocese, the Diocese of Chelmsford, offering a salary of between £80,000 and £90,000 at a time when the CofE is facing financial challenges.

"The national church is working very hard at the moment both to renew our vision about what the Church is for, and to look at how we can do our very best to ensure that no money is spent at the so-called centre that isn't absolutely necessary so that we can put all our resources into front-line ministry," he said.

"Any large community requires organisation, otherwise it would collapse. If you have clergy, you need to pay them and house them – so you've got to have a housing department and a finance department.

"And because of our failures on safeguarding we've absolutely got to have a safeguarding department. And because we need new clergy we've got to have a training department. And because of the world we live in then yes, we do need a HR department." 

Cottrell said that the Church was looking at how it could be "more effective" and "ensure that every penny goes to front-line ministry".

"There are all sorts of groups meeting at the moment who have not yet concluded how best to do that but are making precisely the kind of savings others say we should be making – and I agree with them," he said. 

Elsewhere in the interview, Cottrell said the Church was doing "amazing" work given the fact that many parishes are struggling.

"I want to make a big plea to say come on, cut the Church of England some slack, it's incredible what we do," he said.

"We still have a branch in 16,000 places. We really do punch above our weight – and we're the church for everyone.

"There is such diversity in the Church of England, and although many of our parishes are struggling and small, actually what they achieve in and for their local community is absolutely amazing."