Father Stephens updates
Dear Church Member,
As you know Bishop Simon has recently issued some new guidance on church activities. The document was, I believe, devised by the College of Bishops for dissemination across the country. The document thankfully, is part of the ‘first phase’ of lifting restrictions, reverses the previous prohibition on streaming services in church and priests entering their churches, and issues further guidance/instruction on the second and third phases. I say ‘guidance/instruction’ because despite Archbishop Justin being publically challenged on this point, it is still not clear which it is intended to be.
At present clergy are not supposed to open the church for ‘ceremonies like weddings and funerals’, or lay private prayer,(although they may be permitted to do so in ‘phase two’). In my view health and safety issues for these circumstances are easily manageable and I am now intending to use the church for some of these purposes as outlined below. In taking this step contrary to guidance/instruction, I feel it necessary to take you through my reasons for doing so. Please therefore bear with me through the missive which follows.
At the start of the lock-down, priests going into their churches and streaming services from them was confirmed as being within government guidelines, and indeed a number of denominations including the Roman Catholic and URC churches continued to do just that. I personally continued to say the Offices daily in church. I also streamed Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and would have gone further in streaming live services were it not that some members of our congregation would have been troubled by this. I was not alone in my opposition to the Bishops’ measures. For example a letter from a large number of clergy and lay people to The Times argued against. This may have played a part in the Bishops relenting (somewhat) last week to allow streaming from churches. Certainly the change in their position had nothing to do with changes in risk or new government guidelines, which though anticipated, had not at that time been announced.
Personally I have always rejoiced in having such a capable, and devout Bishop as Bishop James. But in my view his issuing of directive prohibitions, then further backed up with the threat of disciplinary action for non-compliance has seriously damaged the important pastoral relationship between Priests and their Bishop. (Broadly speaking, Parish clergy carry final responsibility for the temporal and spiritual affairs of their church and parish, whilst Bishops are responsible for matters of faith, doctrine and order).
The Bishops’ measures back in late March deprived the whole country of streamed worship from Churches at our major festival of the year, Easter. At a time when the national Church could and should have been a symbol of hope and responsible courage, it effectively went to hide in the dining room (or in the Archbishop’s case- his kitchen). The Bishops have relented late on some of these points, but in my view have still not gone far enough. They are still unnecessarily depriving congregations and the public alike of important parts of their spiritual lives.
I have twice tried to raise these concerns with Bishop James via our Archdeacon Paul Wright. I believe in each case Fr. Paul took my concerns to the Bishops’ staff meeting, but on neither occasion did I receive a reply. I can only conclude that Bishop James is unwilling to enter into discussion about this, and with regret I feel I must now use my own judgement in relation to St Francis.
The Diocese’s latest guidance/instruction maintains a prohibition on funerals in church. This is not only unnecessary; it is one of the cruellest aspects of the current scene. There is absolutely no reason why we should not conduct funerals in church with limited mourners to the same standard of hygiene and social distancing as in crematoria. In fact we can do it bette,r because we won’t have different gatherings every 30 minutes of the day. All the crematoria I have been to recently are running their chapel with one attendant who does everything, including music and wiping down of chairs and door handles. We can do likewise. We can also easily separate our chairs to ensure social distancing. We have Funeral Director and Crematoria procedures and risk assessments to draw on. My initial discussions with Funeral Directors about all this were favourably received. So as of now I am communicating with them to let them know we are open for Church Funerals. I don’t expect many, but I am told this might take some of the pressure off stretched Crematorium Chapels. Hopefully none us will need a funeral soon, but if when the time comes you were anticipating or planning one for yourself or one of your family in church, please do not change those arrangements on account of the church not being available.
Private Prayer in Church
The Bishop’s guidance now allows for me, and only me, as incumbent to enter church with members of my household as long as they are under 70. Judith is over 70 but she and I have no intention of altering our practice in this respect.
Again our Bishops are imposing more severe restrictions on us than are necessary. They are effectively declaring Garden Centres safer and more important than churches. I intend now to open the church to any member of our congregation who wishes to come in for short periods of private prayer or other justifiable reason, by appointment, and on a one to one basis. Written instructions will be given to anyone who wants to take this up, which will include washing of hands on entering and leaving the building. A record will be kept in the event of any future contact tracing being necessary. I will have to be present during such visits to make sure hygiene regulations are not accidentally breached. The church has had no one in it other than myself and Judith since the lock down began. Prior to re-opening for some form of public worship the building will be deep cleaned as advised by the Diocese.
It should be apparent by now, if it wasn’t a long time ago, that exiting lock -down across society is far too diverse and complex a process to be rigidly micro-managed by the government, the Bishops or anybody else. Only so much clarity can be expected. To live sensibly, we are all going to have to fill in a lot of gaps at a local level. Each of us is in a different position with a different set of concerns and perceptions. To move forward we need to share our views, fears and wishes in an open, prayerful and respectful way. I am therefore of course inviting you to, and hoping you will, give me your responses to this as soon as you can. I append the latest Bishop’s guidance below for those of you who have not yet seen it.
With prayers, thanks and best wishes,
As At 20th May 2020