English bishop doubts wisdom of church closures when shops and mosques remain open

English bishop doubts wisdom of church closures when shops and mosques remain open

An English bishop has admitted that he is reflecting on his decision to close the churches of his diocese in the context of other public places, including other places of worship, remaining open.

Bishop Philip Egan of the Diocese of Portsmouth wrote of his agony and confusion in the face of the British government’s self-contradictory orders regarding church closures.

“It was an agonising decision as a priest and as a Bishop to mandate the cessation of the public celebration of the Sacraments and to close our churches,” he wrote last Sunday.

“Regarding the latter, there has been a bit of confusion. In his address last week, the Prime Minister spoke of the closure of places of worship. Yet another arm of government seemed to suggest that they might be kept open, not for gatherings for public worship but for visits,” he continued. 

“Over the last days, as I have been going out for my (government permitted, once a day) walk, I’ve noticed that supermarkets and a few shops are open and of course some people are going out to work. Some synagogues and mosques are open.”

Egan praised the “inventive ways” in which the clergy are already ministering to the faithful, including live-streaming Masses, prayers, and meetings and calling them on the phone. He encouraged his priests to find safe ways of hearing confessions.

One issue that has troubled English Catholics is that their bishops advised the British government to keep the churches shut. The bishop of Plymouth again highlighted the difference between the response of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to the coronavirus pandemic and the less stringent stipulations of the British government when he questioned his own suspension of funeral masses.

“Funerals are an area too that we may need to seek clarification about,” he wrote.

“My first Decree mandated that as churches were closed, funerals should take place at the graveside or in the crematorium only, and of course be limited to the immediate family. This was in line with what the Bishops’ Conference recommended,” he continued.

“However, the Prime Minister in his address has suggested that funerals could go ahead in places of worship, with social-distancing etc. The Decree remains in place, yet I need to take advice as to whether it might be possible to permit a Requiem liturgy in church with the immediate family only present.”

The most recent recommendations of the British government regarding funerals is that the number of mourners be restricted so that they can all remain about seven feet (two meters) apart. Only members of their own household and close family members should attend. If the deceased has no household or family members, “then it is possible for a modest number of friends to attend.” The place where the service is held must be thoroughly cleaned before and afterward. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms may not attend.