Church of England leaders back phased approach to re-opening church buildings

Church of England churches have been closed for public worship since the start of the lockdown(Photo: Unsplash/Hoyoung Choi)

Church of England bishops have backed a phased approach to re-opening church buildings when the lockdown begins to be eased. 

Church buildings have been closed for public worship since the lockdown started. 

At a meeting via Zoom on Tuesday, the bishops agreed to easing guidance on church building closures in line with the Government's approach. 

The first stage will see guidance revised to permit "very limited access" to church buildings by clergy for private prayer or the livestreaming of services. 

As infection levels begin to improve, a second phase will allow church buildings to be opened for some rites and ceremonies "when allowed by law" and with participants "observing appropriate physical distancing and hygiene precautions". 

The final phase will permit worship services in churches with limited congregations in attendance, but only when Government restrictions are eased to allow this. 

Some clergy have already returned to their churches to livestream services after the Archbishop of Canterbury clarified that the Church leadership had given "guidance, not instruction" on closing buildings.

Following their meeting on Wednesday, the bishops said that the latest update was also guidance and "not an instruction or law". 

The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chaired the meeting, said: "We are hugely grateful for all that our churches and clergy have been doing to support the Government's message to stay at home, to support the NHS, and to save lives.

"While it is clear there will be no imminent return to normality, the emphasis is now turning towards how and when aspects of social distancing can be eased, although we remain mindful of the potential risks of a second wave of the virus.

"Nevertheless, it now makes sense for us to start to look ahead to the potential easing of restrictions so that our clergy and churches can be prepared."

The bishops have faced criticism over the guidance to close church buildings during the lockdown. Hundreds of clergy signed a letter published in The Times accusing the Church of England of its responsibility to the nation by keeping churches closed. 

"We regard what has happened to be a failure of the Church's responsibility to the nation, stifling our prophetic witness and defence of the poor, and ask for open discussion and accountability through the Church's structures and other forums regarding the processes and thinking which led to these decisions," they said in the letter.

"It is widely agreed that the temporary closure of churches for public worship is necessary in the current crisis. However, the broadcast of services from a closed church is explicitly permitted by government guidelines, yet unlike almost all other Churches in these isles, the Church of England has gone beyond this advice."