Thousands of churches across England were closed for services on Sunday amid rising concern about the risk of Covid-19 spreading among worshippers.
Although the lockdown rules allow places of worship to remain open for communal services, the Church of England said more than half of England’s 12,500 parishes had taken the decision to shut their doors.
At least 22 cathedrals had also either closed or suspended public worship by the end of last week, and another 11 had decided to limit services.
Many mosques, synagogues and other places of worship have also decided to close in order to protect their congregations from the possibility of Covid transmission. Senior faith leaders have urged local places of worship to carefully consider the risks, and not open if they believe safety could be compromised.
Although social distancing and mask-wearing is mandatory during communal services, some clergy have expressed concerns about mingling before and after worship.
“People have worked out that church is one of the few places they can see friends and family. People chat to their friends at the end of the service as they always have done. The clergy are caught in the middle and it’s hard to keep everyone safe,” said one parishioner.
A C of E spokesperson said decisions were being taken by parishes based on local circumstances. “We urge everyone to be exceptionally cautious and, in particular, to do everything possible to prevent mingling outside of households and support bubbles.”
Some clergy resent the onus being on them to decide the threshold of risk. During the first and second lockdowns, communal worship was banned. One C of E diocese, Chelmsford, has recommended churches offer online services only.
In Scotland, communal services are banned, and Northern Ireland’s main Christian denominations announced churches would close until at least early February. Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, has called for all places of worship in the capital to shut because of the risks of Covid infection.
The Catholic church in England and Wales is keeping communal services under review. Its leader, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, challenged the government ban on collective worship during November’s lockdown.
One Catholic parishioner said they were “staggered” that services were still taking place. “It is totally unnecessary and hardly essential for a group of elderly people to congregate in an enclosed building to pray – I can pray any way and everywhere. The vast majority of those attending fail to maintain social distancing, and collect in groups after mass to chatter.”
The parishioner said their local priest was continuing to open the church for mass “even though he is very anxious and concerned himself. I’m sure this is down to his vow of obedience. The bishop won’t advise the parish priests to close but has left it up to them. I truly admire the priests who have made the decision to close their churches – putting their moral duty first.”
Blackburn Cathedral will open as a mass vaccination centre on Monday, joining Lichfield and Salisbury cathedrals in offering their premises for the public health drive.
“It is only right that in times of national crisis we offer our building as a safe and accessible space for this exciting vaccination programme, and be here to serve the nation in these times of deep uncertainty and fear,” said Blackburn’s dean, Peter Howell Jones.
The vaccination centre will be housed in the cathedral’s crypt, which has its own entrance, and can be open round the clock if needed.