Church of England churches told to suspend services over coronavirus outbreak

(Photo: Unsplash/Thomas Kelley)

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are calling on Church of England churches to suspend public services for the timebeing in light of the escalating coronavirus crisis. 

Under the new guidance issued today, churches are to remain open "where possible" for members of the public to come in for private prayer, but services are to be paused indefinitely. 

In a joint letter to parishes, Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu said the changes were being made in light of this "very unusual and painful time".  

"As the challenge of the coronavirus grips the world, and as the Government asks every individual and every organisation to rethink its life, we are now asking the Church of England in all its parishes, chaplaincies and ministries to serve all people in a new way," they wrote.

"Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold.

"But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop. Far from it. We need to look at new ways of serving everyone." 

Some of these "new ways" include livestreaming services so that parishioners can worship from home, and the Church of England has said it will be expanding its audio and digital resources in the coming weeks. 

Churches are also encouraged to be a comforting presence over the coming months, when many across the nation are likely to be grieving the loss of loved ones. 

The engagement of churches in their communities should continue to have a practical element, the Archbishops continue, particularly when it comes to looking out for the poorest and most vulnerable. 

"Many people are going to suffer during these coming months as the coronavirus reaches its peak," the letter goes on. 

"Tragically there will be deaths and so many will be grieving and fearful.

"We, the Church of Jesus Christ, with our sisters and brothers from other Christian churches, must be in the forefront of providing practical care and support for the most poor and the most vulnerable, and we offer our services to all those who are beginning to think through how best to provide for those in need." 

The Archbishops ask that parishes continue to support their local foodbanks and consider buying extra provisions as the number of people relying on them is expected to rise in light of job losses brought on by the pandemic. 

Churches hosting night shelters for the homeless are urged to keep them open "wherever possible".

"Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead," they write.

"Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day. 

"We may not be able to pray with people in the ways that we are used to, but we can certainly pray for people. And we can certainly offer practical care and support." 

It is such acts of service that will make Jesus Christ known so that "the hope of the gospel – a hope that can counter fear and isolation - will spread across our land", the Archbishops said.

They added: "This is a defining moment for the Church of England. Are we truly are a church for all, or just the church for ourselves.

"We urge you sisters and brothers to become a different sort of church in these coming months: hopeful and rooted in the offering of prayer and praise and overflowing in service to the world."

The change in guidance from the Church of England comes after the Government on Monday told people to avoid large gatherings. 

Amid confusion over the scope of the Government's guidance, health secretary Matt Hancock clarified in the Commons that it applied to religious gatherings. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the signatories to a letter from Church leaders calling on the nation to join together in a day of prayer and action on Mothering Sunday this weekend for those who are sick or anxious, and for health workers and members of the emergency services.