LEICESTER, United Kingdom – The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has called for “a bit more sensitivity from the government” when it comes to the issue of opening churches for prayer and worship, and said the way Catholics use their churches means they could be opened safely earlier than some other faith communities.
Speaking to the Today program on the BBC’s Radio 4 on Thursday, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, noted the Catholic Church “certainly has put forward already detailed protocols, agreed with Public Health England about how we can start the process, step by step, of making churches available for people.”
When the United Kingdom went into lockdown on March 23 to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, all churches and houses of worship were closed, even for private prayer. Most European countries – including the Republic of Ireland – banned public liturgies, but allowed churches to remain open for private prayer.
“Now, in these last weeks, we’ve been creative, we’ve been faithful. Mass has been celebrated every single day in Catholic churches. People have joined in online but there’s something, a big, big feeling in the religious communities, of wanting to get back to a fuller practice of their faith, as long as we can do it safely,” Nichols said.
“The Catholic faith has a particular structure and pattern which is built around sacraments and sacraments are explicit moments in which we are contact with the Lord. People have been distanced from their sacraments. They have been able to follow Mass every day and hundreds of thousands of people have joined in online. But every single one of them wants to be able to receive Holy Communion,” the cardinal said.
“So there is a great deal of deep spiritual sacrifice being made and, okay, we’re willing, but we want to know that we are appreciated and the sensitivities are recognized and that we have these opportunities to open up – safely, step by step,” he added.
Earlier this week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a 50-page, three-stage plan to re-open England. Under the plan, churches would not be allowed to be open until July 4.
(The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will set their own timetables to end the lockdown in their respective countries.)
Nichols says churches could be opened safely sooner than that.
“Well, to begin with, I would like churches available for people to go and kneel and say their prayers, privately, individually. It would mean a routine of supervision; a routine of social distancing; a routine of cleansing. And all of that we believe we can do,” the cardinal told the BBC.
“There’s another thing it needs. It needs an understanding of what goes on in places of workshop is quite different from one to another. So a personal, individual prayer in a Catholic church is not something that is much done in Pentecostal churches, which tend to concentrate on big gatherings, and it’s not what’s done in mosques where people pray side by side. So we need a bit of differentiated thinking,” he explained.
Nichols admitted the government could be “stung a bit” if it was seen as favoring one faith community over another, but a government taskforce on reopening places of worship could address these issues. The taskforce was scheduled to being meeting on May 15.
“This is why the taskforce that meets will bring together these perceptions and the religious literacy that is needed to take this forward. But I think it can be done,” he said.
“But we’ve got plans; we’ve got preparation and we know the depth of peoples’ feeling and their need, so that they can live their faith well and safely. That’s what we are looking for.”
Churches in other parts of the United Kingdom are also asking the government to address their concerns.
Earlier this month, the Church leaders in Ireland called on the Northern Ireland Executive to allow churches to be opened for private prayer, as they are across the border in the Republic of Ireland. The Scottish bishops also announced the creation of a working group which will submit a plan for reopening churches in Scotland.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome