Covid confusion: Church of England clergy and their buildings

The Archbishop of Canterbury closed the chapel at his official residence Lambeth Palace, in solidarity with shuttered churches across the country

Let us, just for a moment, imagine a parallel universe in which some events of the last few weeks had unfolded differently.

In this sci-ci alternative reality, as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York meet to discuss the Church of England's response. And part of what they decide is that vicars can continue entering churches for private prayer and to record or stream services, as to do otherwise would be a 'dereliction of duty'.

That would have been in line with government guidance, of course. This says that a minister of religion is permitted 'to go to their place of worship, including to broadcast an act of worship to people outside the place of worship, whether over the internet or otherwise'.

So what if the Archbishops' guidance had been to permit this, rather than urge clergy not to (as in fact they did)? Here's a further scenario in this alt-universe: Somewhere, a vicar enters a church for private prayer. He locks the door as he comes out, and returns home. Later, a passing care worker, weary after a long nursing home shift, walks past on the way home and wonders if they could pop into the building for a bit of peace. They try the handle of the church door, only to find it closed. Never mind – home they go, and back next day into work.

It turns out the care worker has picked up Covid-19 from the church door handle, as the vicar had been infected but was not yet showing symptoms. The coronavirus spreads from the care worker to the elderly residents of the nursing home, and a dozen die. In a short time, with a bit of journalistic endeavour, the story is all over the national press.

Of course, this didn't happen. But had the Archbishops made our posited alternative decision, it just might have done. And imagine the media storm which would then have broken – with journalists linking the Church of England's 'negligence' over the virus with their 'negligence' over safeguarding, and columnists banging on about 'one standard for privileged clergy, another for everyone else'... Critics in the church itself would no doubt berate the Primates for poor leadership, lack of attention to the science, and for prioritising church buildings above the nation's health.

As we know, of course, Justin Welby and John Sentamu decided differently. But they must rightly have had all sorts of similar scenarios in mind as they did. Moreover, they would also have been aware of other countries where churches attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons by spreading Covid-19. One church in France was linked to 2,500 cases, another in South Korea to 5,000. Perhaps the Archbishops had even seen the headline in Infection Control Today, 'Churches Could be the Deadliest Places in the COVID-19 Pandemic'. 

So it surprises me that there has been such strong opposition from a vocal minority of clergy to Justin Welby's instruction (albeit later clarified as 'guidance') about temporarily not entering their churches. A letter in The Times last week from 800 ministers and lay people said the buildings represented 'the consecration of our public life.' And a short while before that, both the Mail and Telegraph reported one evangelical vicar as saying it was 'time to revolt' while retired liberal bishop Peter Selby declared in The Tablet: 'Bishops will surely seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional.'

Meanwhile, Meg Warner, an academic who has taught in both the UK and US, made the unfounded claim last week that the Archbishops' stance amounted to an 'admission... that in these, admittedly extraordinary, times, the Church of England, if it were to intervene, would be likely to do more harm than good'  and somehow managed to link it all, tastelessly, to the Aberfan coal tip disaster.

But the theology of the Bible is clear: whereas in the Old Testament, God's presence was particularly manifest in the Jerusalem temple, now it is followers of Jesus who are that 'sacred space' – because the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Indeed the New Testament says nothing at all about buildings being essential for worship – whether congregational or solo. Theologian Ian Paul tackles all this at much greater length on his Psephizo blog

Buildings are generally useful and may well be beautiful – and we have three wonderful 1,000-year-old ones in our parishes here. But theologically, there was, and is, no Scriptural (or even technological) necessity for clergy to live-stream or record services in church buildings; no need, according to the Word of God, for ministers to have to go there for private prayer; and no Biblical mandate on this which makes defying Bishops an absolute imperative.

The measure was always going to be temporary. Already, plans are in motion for individual bishops to start allowing clergy back into their buildings as seems appropriate in each diocese. So what, one wonders, drove this negativity in some reactions? A habit of automatically taking a stance of opposition to anything bishops might say or do? A misplaced love – even perhaps for some (dare I say it) an idolatry – of buildings, or the technology within them? An Old Testament rather than New Testament theology of where God is present? A fear that this could set an unhelpful precedent for government or episcopal interference in local church life?

Sometimes it is appropriate to criticise Anglican bishops (as I for one have done) but on this particular issue it seems appropriate to cut them some slack and show generous understanding. These are passing measures in unprecedented times. Maybe they got this right, maybe they were over-cautious; I don't know. Either way, at some point before long we will all be wrestling with the complexities of running services in church buildings with adequate social distancing, and probably missing our home-recorded services.

In the meantime, there have been some wonderful new opportunities for mission. Many churches have been jolted into new ways and new life. And at the end of the day, Justin Welby was spot on theologically when he said: 'We don't depend on the buildings, wonderful as they are, and they are treasures. What we depend on is the presence of God, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who leads us into his love, into his mission, into following him.' 

Perhaps that truth about buildings which he articulated so well is one of the many things the Lord is trying to teach us at the moment. And perhaps it is something some of my – universally lovely – fellow clergy just possibly need to hear.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister @Baker_David_A