Priest resumes Eucharist inside historic London church after Archbishop's clarification on building closures

Marcus Walker delivering the Eucharist from inside his church, St Bartholomew-the-Great, which dates back to 1123 and is London's oldest parish church.(Photo: Facebook/St Bartholomew-the-Great)

A London priest has resumed Eucharists in person inside his historic church after the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Church of England's position on building closures was "guidance, not instruction". 

Rev Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew-the-Great, had challenged the guidance from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York telling churches to suspend public worship and close their buildings because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The guidance from the Church of England tells clergy to livestream services from their homes and keep their buildings closed, even for private prayer. 

However, some clergy have challenged this, with Rev Walker suggesting that it was against canon law to forbid priests from holding the Eucharist or saying prayers in their church buildings. 

The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, has also criticised church closures.  He has argued that churches should be allowed to open with appropriate social distancing measures. 

"Going to church is not the same as going to a pub or a football match. Provided that safe distancing is possible and is maintained, this is exactly the time when people will feel the need to go in and be quiet and, perchance, to pray for themselves or a loved one or even the situation as a whole," he said.

"Why is this any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?"

Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show last week, Archbishop Justin Welby suggested that priests were free to decide for themselves on whether to enter their buildings. 

"We have given guidance, not instruction," the Archbishop said.

He continued: "Frankly, Andrew, in the Church of England, the one way to get anyone to do the opposite of what you want is to give them an order. It works with all of us. Someone said it's like herding cats.

"So no, we haven't given an instruction, so we haven't broken canon law. We have said: this is how you care for your flock and share in the privations of the flock, and share in the suffering of the nation, and set an example, and care for others and look after them, and, you know, stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.

"It's not complicated," he added.

Following the clarification, Rev Walker announced over the weekend that he was returning to his church building to deliver the Eucharist after "three weeks of exile". 

"With the Archbishop's instructions that his ban on broadcasting from churches was merely an instruction, I was delighted to return to St Bartholomews to celebrate and broadcast a Eucharist today!" he wrote on Twitter.

He was the sole person in the building during the service, which was livestreamed via Facebook to mostly positive feedback.