Epiphany 2021. The Wise Men have arrived in the guise of SAGE – the wisest of the wise. If we follow the star of science and heed their advice, coronavirus infection rates will fall, hospital admissions decrease, and the NHS will be saved, as will we all. Or most of us will. So here we go again. More weeks of suspended animation, more months of haunting isolation, and more deprivations of the necessities of life, like moments of intimacy and the occasional hug. It’s fine if you live in a large house with a nice garden and have no school-age children, but if you’re a single parent working from home in a one-bedroom flat trying to home-school three screaming kids, you have a glimpse of purgatory.
This time it’s a little different, however: the churches are open, and public worship continues. Communion and the proclamation of the gospel continue – unless you live in Scotland, where the secularist SNP have disunited the Kingdom (again), as though they have a motive beyond beating Covid-19 into a corner.
The Church of England is open for public worship, the Church in Wales is open for public worship, and the Church of Ireland is open for public worship. The precise numbers who may meet in each building are variable, but provided social distancing is adhered to and masks are worn (and people don’t gossip at the back of the church after the service), the people of God can come and go, and the bells may still be rung. Unlike the March lockdown, the Archbishop of Canterbury is permitting clergy to enter and leave as they wish. This time the churches are pastorally open for ministry; they are little arks of salvation in the Covid climate; here to love, serve and reify the holiness of God.
But the Church of Scotland is closed, and the Church in Scotland is closed. If you dare to gather to worship God in Bonkle, North Lanarkshire, you’ll get fined £60. Perhaps it’s worth the sacrificial offering. But if you do it again, it increases to £120 and doubles with each repeat offence up to to £960, where the fine is capped. So public worship in Scotland is possible if you’re rich.
The Conservatives understand the importance of the mission of the Church in England. Labour understand the importance of the mission of the Church in Wales. The DUP and Sinn Féin understand the importance of the mission of the Church in Northern Ireland. But the SNP thinks it’s all about vacuous dogma and pious stained-glass windows. You can sniff the equality of secularity: if you can’t go to the pub for a pint and a burger, you shouldn’t be able to go to church for bread and wine. It’s only fair.
The Bishop of London the Rt Rev’d Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, summarised the situation for England:
The Prime Minister’s words tonight underline the severity of the situation for the country, as the virus continues to spread rapidly. At a time like this, the Church is here to offer comfort and spiritual support to everyone. We have a duty to care for each other, but particularly those who are vulnerable or who may be most at risk.
The Government has chosen not to suspend public worship in England at this time and we will continue to follow the guidance and ensure that churches remain as safe as possible. The Government guidance on the safe use of places of worship makes clear that those attending a place of worship must not mingle with anyone outside their household or support bubble.
However, some may feel that it is currently better not to attend in person, and there will be parishes which decide to offer only digital services for the time-being. Clergy who have concerns, and others who are shielding, should take particular care and stay at home.
I would urge everyone in our churches to pray for those on the front line in our public services – the NHS and those working in social care, for schools and many others on whom we depend; and for parents and carers of children at this anxious and stressful time.
There is hope. The vaccination programme is underway and, as Christians, we have a deeper hope in God that comforts us beyond fear itself. As we have been remembering this Christmas Season, even in the midst of our darkest fears, that hope brings light.
This is perfectly pitched, and exactly as it should be (and how it ought to have been March-June 2020). If clergy feel it is safer to close their churches, silence their bells and minister via Zoom, they should be free to make such decisions. If parishioners feel they’d rather stay at home and pray than attend a public act of worship, they would be wise to follow their conscience. This is the freedom which the People of God require: to be able to live worshipfully for God in the home or in the church; to be free to live with a moral rationality to reflect on Divine knowledge and participate in God’s plan without Government interference.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the ordinariness of life and the shackles of confinement may be transcended with a ‘higher’ vision of God in a sacred space, and an awesome sense of the holy mystery in communion with one another. In Scotland, you’ll need to find God in your bathroom or the kitchen. He’s there, alright. But it’s a lot harder to find sanctity behind the toilet, or seek a divine revelation while you’re pealing the neeps n’tatties.