LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scotland’s bishops have established a working group on how churches will be re-opened in the country after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.
The United Kingdom went into lockdown on March 23 to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and all churches were closed to the public as part of the measures.
Although the four constituent nations of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have been coordinating their lockdown efforts, each national government is responsible for lockdown measures.
The new working group will work to develop protocols on opening churches that will be presented to the Scottish government.
Bishop Hugh Gilbert, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, is a member of the group.
“The restrictions on public worship required in Scotland and the UK have in general been understood and accepted by the Catholic faithful. At the same time, the lack of access to the sacraments has been felt as a deprivation,” he told Crux.
Gilbert said throughout the weeks of lockdown, there have been many signs of hope and faith.
“It is in the hope that we will recover, that we must plan for the future and find a safe pathway to the resumption of our sacramental life,” he said.
The bishop added the working group “are keen” to use the advice of medical and public health experts: Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde and Scotland’s former chief medical officer, will chair the committee.
“I am glad that the Catholic Bishops are acting proactively to develop Infection Control measures and delighted to be able to contribute to that work,” Burns said.
“The reopening of churches and the reintroduction of public worship will happen in a phased way, always taking account of best infection control practice and guidelines on social distancing and hygiene,” he added.
The working group will create an Infection Control Protocol, that will govern the phased reopening of churches for public worship at the earliest opportunity it can be safely done, in accordance with legislation and Scottish Government guidelines on social distancing and safety protocols.
Archbishop Leo Cushley of St. Andrews and Edinburgh said the procedures and protocols “will allow us to progress in stages and in a safe way towards the opening of our churches for prayer, and later, for worship, even if at first in a curtailed form.”
Gilbert said “in the interests of everyone’s safety we will proceed cautiously and carefully in step with public health guidance,” although he told Crux, “the Scottish Government has shown itself willing to dialogue with the different sectors of society affected by the pandemic.”
On Thursday, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said the lockdown in Scotland “must be extended at this stage,” citing the fact a “significant number” of people remain infected with the coronavirus.
“Extreme caution is required at this critical juncture to avoid a rapid resurgence of the virus,” she said. “It is not an exaggeration to say decisions now are a matter of life and death.”
Her words came as rumors were circulating in the British press that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was set to announce a slight easing of lockdown restrictions beginning on Monday.
“If the prime minister wants to move at a faster pace for England, that is his right. But I hope you understand and agree that I must make judgements, informed by the evidence, that are right and safe for Scotland,” Sturgeon said.
She said she would review the situation in Scotland in three weeks.
A Church spokesperson told Crux that the Church in Scotland “has continued to maintain a regular dialogue with the Scottish Government through the Catholic Parliamentary Office.”
“This communication has been mutually beneficial and will continue as planning for future reopening of churches gets underway,” the spokesperson said.
Gilbert admitted to Crux that “in terms of the spread of the disease, Scotland is somewhat behind the southern parts of the UK, though there are positive signs.”
The bishop said the clergy in the country “have shown remarkable creativity in remaining in contact with the faithful, efforts that have been widely appreciated.”
“As bishops, we want to offer our thanks to our clergy, religious and laity for their patience and forbearance during these testing times,” he said.
“Our lives remain greatly restricted by this crisis in a way that is painful and difficult for us as Christians,” Gilbert added.
Bishops throughout the United Kingdom have been slowly preparing for life after lockdown.
On May 1, five metropolitan archbishops of England and Wales wrote a letter saying that as government social distancing restrictions are gradually relaxed, “we look forward to opening our churches and resuming our liturgical, spiritual, catechetical and pastoral life step by step.”
Two days later, Christian leaders in Ireland asked the Northern Ireland Executive to allow churches to be opened for private prayer, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome