Challenges for the Church of England

May 5, 2020 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Should churches reopen, and what are they for? 

The day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a ‘lockdown’ on March 23rd, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England ordered that all churches should immediately close and not be used even for private prayer by clergy.

The main reason given was to set an example in taking seriously the danger of the virus and slowing down its spread: just as sports venues, theatres, restaurants and garden centres were closing, and many people were no longer able to work or having to work from home, so the church should not be an exception. Anglicans should suffer the deprivations of the lockdown along with the rest of the population; they should also show that they are obedient to the authorities. Clergy were encouraged to use technology to broadcast worship, prayer and teaching from their homes, and to find creative ways, within government guidelines, to continue to support the most vulnerable.

It will be interesting to see the effects of this as researchers investigate what has happened. Anecdotal evidence suggests that churches with existing programmes to support the vulnerable, such as running foodbanks, have been able to continue with this, though with restricted opportunities for the personal contact that is so essential. Churches with tech-savvy clergy and/or motivated laity, with less focus on the building as an essential aid to worship and whose congregations are more used to interacting through screens, have adapted best. More traditional churches, especially smaller and rural congregations have probably struggled. While some parishioners in these churches may have been listening to occasional services on the radio, new material on phonelines or even through the internet, there must be many who have had no contact with church since late March and as the habit of regular worship has been broken, they may be difficult to win back.

In other words, the churches with already most potential for growth and mission – generally more evangelical and with younger congregations – are surviving and even thriving through this lockdown, while those already in decline: multi-parish benefices with small, elderly congregations for whom the practice of faith is inseparable from being in a building with others, are in danger of losing even the small amount that they have. Given the inevitable serious economic impact of the lockdown, the Dioceses of the Church of England will find sustaining regular ministry in these declining parishes even more of a challenge.

Voices calling for churches to open in some form, and be more visible, have been heard since the start of the lockdown and have grown louder in recent days. In early April Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali suggested that church buildings should be open for private prayer, using responsible social distancing measures, and that Christians should find ways of testifying publicly to the gospel, for example with small street processions during Holy Week.

When it became clear that churches would be closed for Easter even for clergy, criticism of the Archbishop’s instruction grew, and after he said on TV that clergy had only been given ‘guidance’ not legally enforceable instructionsome clergy began to livestream services from their church buildings in contravention of the guidance.

Articles by heavyweights such as former Bishop of Worcester Peter Selby (The Tablet) and historian Tom Holland (Daily Telegraph) bemoaned the Church’s retreat from public witness and argued for a relaxation of the rules, and on 4th May a letter signed by more than 500 clergy and laity was published in The Times, calling the clergy church ban a “failure of the Church’s responsibility to the nation”.

Why should churches have remained open in some form, and be first to benefit from relaxing of lockdown procedures? Those in favour argue that unlike watching football or going to the pub, corporate worship in a sacred space is an essential activity, like keeping school open for children of key workers. It is the outworking of living in the reality of life under the creator and Saviour God, not being part of a club for like minded people. It is part of the national fabric. To close the church doors is a powerful symbol of the irrelevance and decline of religion (as Melvin Tinker argues here); to keep them open, even in a restricted form using methods to prevent transmission of infection, is a witness to the primacy of the Christian faith as public truth, to faith in God who heals and protects, and to hope in the future.

While some Anglicans have argued this from a perspective of attributing more importance to the physical and visual aspects of a church building in worship, others have expressed nervousness about the church leadership’s hasty and unquestioned acceptance of state control as symptomatic of an acceptance of growing restrictions on freedom of religion generally.

It seems unlikely that the Bishops will push for a more rapid easing of the lockdown as business leaders are doing. But it would not be a surprise to see a phased opening of church buildings in line with what the government permits across the country as a whole. If as a start, church gatherings are limited to say 20 people, observing two metre distance, it would be interesting to see whether larger churches open for services every day, perhaps encouraging those who can do so to attend on a day other than Sunday. We could see a ‘back to basics’ approach; less reliant on polished performance and more on liturgy, ministry of the Word, prayer and lay involvement. Initially worship may have to take place with worshippers wearing face coverings and without communal singing as is being proposed in Germany. My own view is that a creative solution must be found to the problem of Holy Communion – if taking the elements physically cannot be made safe, then some kind of online sharing must be permitted.

Not yet Living in Love and Faith

At the time of writing we’re waiting for the Bishops to give a lead on these issues, and also on  final decisions about General Synod: whether the July session can be held online, and then the election of new delegates originally scheduled for September. We know already that the publication of Living in Love and Faith, which was expected for June in time for the Lambeth Conference and Synod, has been postponed indefinitely.

The statement stressed that this does not mean the issue of the Church’s teaching on same sex relationships and transgenderism has been “parked” or kicked into the long grass, but that it would be better to wait until the planned process of “whole church engagement” with the materials, and “episcopal discernment and decision-making”, eventually under leadership of Bishop of London, will be possible in the light of pandemic restrictions. There is also a hint that “the context” i.e. the global medical emergency and associated economic crisis may result in changes to the original document and process.

For many, it will be a great relief that the pandemic has provided a reason to indefinitely push into the background the ongoing bitter debate about the issue of LGBT inclusion in the Church. Those campaigning for change in the church’s teaching are not happy about the delay. It’s not difficult to have an educated guess about what will happen. Assuming that the world gets control of the virus transmission and death toll, LLF could be published in summer 2021, just before the delayed Lambeth Conference. The aim of the document and the process that follows will be to ensure more informal acceptance of the LGBT agenda among the majority of churches, but without formal changes to canons and liturgy, in order to avoid large scale protest and even departure by theologically conservative clergy and laity. The formal changes will be brought before Synod when there is sufficient momentum to do so.

While CoVid has dominated the news and brought people together to a large extent, the culture wars, based on different understandings of reality, still exist. Orthodox Anglicans will need to be prepared for the LLF process in advance, rather than just waiting and reacting.


See also (since this article was written):

House of Bishops backs phased approach to revising access to church buildings, from Church of England website

General Synod July residential cancelled; options for online meeting proposed, from Church of England website



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