LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s top prelate says it is “now time” to open churches in the country.

The United Kingdom went into lockdown on March 23 to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and all churches in the country was closed, even for private prayer.

The four parts of the UK – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – are in charge of lifting lockdown measures, and Northern Ireland has already opened churches for private prayer.

The United Kingdom has had 273,000 people test positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, with 38,376 deaths, the highest total in Europe.

Beginning June 1, England has eased restrictions on people’s movements, and up to six people will be able to meet in outdoor areas, including private yards and gardens, as long as social distancing measures are observed. In addition, outdoor markets and car showrooms will be allowed to open. The government has also announced all non-essential shops will be allowed to open on June 15.

However, as it stands, churches will not be allowed to open their doors until July at the earliest.

In his Pentecost homily, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said the announcement that markets and shops can start to open “questions directly the reasons why our churches remain closed.”

The cardinal is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

“We are told that these openings, which are to be carefully managed, are based on the need to encourage key activities to start up again. Why are churches excluded from this decision?” Nichols asked.

The cardinal noted that the Catholic Church accepted the government’s decision to close churches because the protection of life required it, even if “the waiting has been hard.”

However, he said “it is now time to move to the phased opening of our churches.”

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“The importance of faith to so many people is clear. The role of faith in our society has been made even clearer in these last weeks: As a motivation for the selfless care of the sick and dying; as providing crucial comfort in bereavement; as a source of immense and effective provision for those in sharp and pressing need; as underpinning a vision of the dignity of the every person, a dignity that has to be at the heart of the rebuilding of our society,” Nichols said. “The opening of our churches, even if just for individual prayer, helps to nurture this vital contribution to our common good.”

The cardinal acknowledged it is important that opening churches “must be done safely,” but said the Catholic Church is “confident” it can accomplish this.

“We have developed expert guidance. We are ready to follow the Government’s guidelines as soon as they are finalized. What is the risk to a person who sits quietly in a church which is being thoroughly cleaned, properly supervised and in which social distancing is maintained? The benefits of being able to access places of prayer is profound, on individual and family stability and, significantly, on their willingness to help others in their need,” Nichols continued.

The United Kingdom was in the minority of European countries by ordering all churches closed for private prayer — even in Italy, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak on the continent, people were allowed to make a visit to their local church. The Republic of Ireland also allowed churches to remain open for private prayer.

In a May 14 interview with the BBC, Nichols suggested the government allow Catholic churches to open earlier than some other denominations or other faiths, since “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.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome