The Prime Minister’s speech to the nation (of England) has set out a path toward normality following the period of enforced isolation and social distancing deemed necessary by the coronavirus. As he acknowledged, the lockdown has come at colossal cost to our way of life: “We can see it all around us in the shuttered shops and abandoned businesses and darkened pubs and restaurants.”
There are some, of course, who insist the churches never needed to lock their doors (at least to their own priests and vicars, who were, after all, classed as ‘keyworkers’): the damage to the Church of England’s mission and perceptions of its ministry has been immense. Instead of boldly witnessing to the nation and defiantly proclaiming the light of salvation from its parish pulpits (via the Internet), every church was darkened; every liturgical service banned. If you were equipped technologically to give remote succor to your flock, you had to do it from your kitchen or conservatory. ‘Ready, Steady, God’ (or ‘Easter Bakeoff’) will become the abiding image of Justin Welby’s period as Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Prime Minister has now sketched out a plan for re-opening society:
And step three – at the earliest by July – and subject to all these conditions and further scientific advice; if and only if the numbers support it, we will hope to re-open at least some of the hospitality industry and other public places, provided they are safe and enforce social distancing.
Public places include churches. The Times is already demanding it:
We must move on from the widespread perception of the Church of England as an inert church, dedicated more to the maintenance of the status quo and government-prescribed (and proscribed) pastoral duties than to the Mission of God. A church that is cutting-edge and prophetic needs to be vibrant in its worship, preaching, teaching and pastoral care: the Cure of Souls must actually reach souls in a community, not just help to fill their bellies. For the Church of England to fulfil its national pastoral ministry to England, it needs to be seen to have the fullest possible participation in civil society, and it needs to be seen and known to be doing that.
Locked doors do not convey to parishioners that grace an nature may combine to witness to the goodness of God in the rhythms of life: instead, we are left with is a sense of coronavirus depravity having prevailed against ministry and muzzled the liturgy. We must return immediately to the ‘occasional offices’, and responsibility for doing so ought to be devolved to individual bishops in their dioceses, since the virus has affected and is affecting regions differently. It doesn’t need paternalistic command and control from Lambeth Palace. If there are zero cases in your town or county, then the pastoral mission in the community needs to be revived immediately, and it can be. Baptisms, marriages and funerals are all possible with a little physical distancing.
The Prime Minister hasn’t answered every detailed question about who may do what or when and how: he is asking us to grow up, be sensible, and take responsibility for our actions and lives. That is what priests of the Church of England should have been trusted to do from the outset, and to move forward step by step in trustful discipleship into God’s future.