The UK Government’s phased plan to lift the coronavirus lockdown leaves churches closed until at least July 4, over a month after non-essential retail reopens and many children return to school. The Government has insisted that it is being “led by the science”, but the Catholic bishops have started to raise concerns that the new guidelines are ill-advised and insensitive to the needs of the faithful.

This is not to say that the Church was particularly resistant to the lockdown measures being imposed in the first place. It was a representative of the Catholic bishops, in fact, who alerted the government to a contradiction between its original plan to allow churches to stay open for private prayer and its ban on “non-essential travel”, which soon led to the shuttering of all places of worship. But the question now arises as to whether churches pose such a risk to public health that they should remain closed, along with much of the leisure and hospitality sectors, whilst shopping malls and schools start to reopen. The Catholic Herald recently discussed this issue with various experts who have been trying to make sense of the latest guidelines.

Dr Eli Perencevich, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, who co-authored an article on the need to suspend religious gatherings during the pandemic, offers us some explanation for why church reopenings are being left until the third and final stage of deconfinement: “churches are just a unique situation, where they’re indoors and people sit right next to each other for extended periods and the old and young are together”. For Dr Perencevich, it is this “intergenerational mixing that makes it a particularly high-risk situation.” This is because infected children, who are often asymptomatic carriers, “can spread the virus and have close contact with older churchgoers, who then would catch the virus and have really high morbidity and mortality.” He adds, sympathetically, that his own diocese justified extending its church closures on the grounds that its priests typically fall into this older, higher-risk demographic.

The other acute transmission risks he cites surround church practices: receiving Communion, collecting the offertory, singing together, shaking hands at the sign of peace and dipping hands into holy water fonts. Cardinal Vincent Nichols has recently described how, through “a routine of supervision, a routine of social distancing, a routine of cleansing”, churches could potentially reopen for personal prayer whilst suspending these higher-risk practices. Dr Perencevich agrees that this could present a “far lower risk” than regular church services but, even here, he advises a policy of churchgoers wearing face visors or masks to reduce transmission, given the poor ventilation typical of churches. He also adds that such limited access to churches would still not entirely resolve the problem of the old and young mixing in the same space for extended periods, an issue he does not think applies so readily to the DIY stores and golf courses that have already begun to reopen.

One of his colleagues and co-authors, Dr Heather Reisinger, a medical anthropologist, points out another potential problem during our discussion of “soft reopenings”. For her, places of worship are marked by particularly close social interactions and “ritualised” practices. The idea, then, of people meeting the same members of their parish community and no longer hugging and greeting them or, indeed, no longer touching or kissing the same religious statues or items, seems unlikely to come about through a simple change in official policy. Dr Reisinger thinks that the level of monitoring and cleaning required will therefore present formidable public health challenges to churches, since “going into a space with very close interactions and trying to get your mind to think differently is just very hard”.

Dr Michael Beasley, the Anglican Bishop of Hertford and an epidemiologist by training, agrees that these public health challenges are a “real poser” for churches. Speaking to the Herald, he says that clergy are typically clear minded about the need to return to church only when it is safe to do so. “Churches are going to want to come out of lockdown with great care because none of us want to go back to what we’ve experienced, so I don’t think it’s going to be like flicking on a switch.” The Church of England earlier voiced its support for the latest guidelines, which Bishop Beasley echoes when saying that we should not “split hairs” over the government’s timetable for church reopenings: “it’s what we’ve got and our challenge now is to get on with it really well.”

Professor David Paton, an economist at the University of Nottingham, suggests to us that there is a danger, however, of churches finding their spiritual needs completely side-lined with “over the top” restrictions if they are too acquiescent in the reopening debate, especially when other interest groups are lobbying for their own cause. “It makes absolutely no sense that shops are going to be open from June 1 and churches won’t be open,” he says. “Perhaps they’ve not lobbied effectively enough to get things opened a bit earlier, but it seems an awfully long time to wait given that other areas of the economy are opening up.” Professor Paton thinks churches should, therefore, start lobbying harder for the reintroduction of specific activities: “confessions, small weddings, small scale services, perhaps mid-week, and, the simplest of all, being open for private prayer, as happened immediately before the lockdown.”

However, churches asserting their rights more forcefully in the public sphere will always be met with some pushback. Michal Kravel-Tovi and Esra Özyürek of the London School of Economics have written that “religious communities are all-too-easily identified and demonized by vast secular and liberal publics for displaying a compromised citizenship, and for favouring communal doctrines and authorities over the dictates of the state.” They concluded that this anxiety can suppress the “question of how and why—or indeed, whether—public health concerns should be prioritized over other considerations, including the mental wellbeing and religious needs of believers”.

During the lockdown, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has similarly asked whether society is “reversing the hierarchy of values, putting physical health above spiritual?” But, speaking to the Herald, Professor Özyürek wishes to interrogate the question further, because she thinks it is a mistake to conclude that secular political decisions are only motivated by public health concerns. “We know that lots of non-religious leaders do not give advice exactly along the lines of what science is saying – not everything they do is just to protect people’s lives – look at the UK government, what kind of advice they were giving, and even now: ‘we strongly encourage you to go back to work’.” Her conclusion is blunt: “the priority is to bring in money, even though this is a country where loneliness and isolation is also an epidemic.”

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