May 4, 2020 - 11:00am

Tomorrow the bishops of the Church of England will meet to consider the growing opposition to their policy of banning clergy from saying prayers in their churches.

To recap: on 24 March the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to the clergy of the Church of England with the following instruction: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own.”

The guidance of the government makes it specifically clear that clergy are allowed into their churches on their own to pray and to broadcast prayer. And the Roman Catholics and other churches continue to do so. But the C of E has banned its clergy from doing this, in some Dioceses with the threat of disciplinary action hanging over those who do.

The deep unhappiness about this continues to grow. Today a letter was sent to The Times signed by hundreds of clergy and lay people complaining about the current restrictions. And as the resistance grows so too does the counter-resistance — with arguments from those defending the official line appearing all over social media.

These arguments are interesting, not least because almost none of them mention safety. After all, if a priest is allowed out of his or her house to go for a run, why can’t s/he run to an empty church and say their prayers. Some of us even have Rectories connected to the church. There is, of course, no real health and safety argument.

Here is a precis of some of the arguments that have emerged defending the official line.

  1. The Bishop of Croydon writes that this is a time of exile and that the experience of exile is deep in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and one we could do well to reconnect with it. He sees this crisis as an opportunity to exorcise the church of excessive churchiness: “And that is the question with which we need to wrestle – whether we are perhaps too much at home in the ecclesiastical life we have lived up to this time?”
  2. The Bishop of Burnley wants us all to stop arguing about peripheral matters and concentrate instead on those who are the real victims of this hideous plague — especially the poor.
  3. The Rev’d Miranda Threlfall-Holmes argues that it is mostly men who are getting exercised by being locked out of their churches. She tweeted: “I am really interested in the idea that ‘retreating to the kitchen’ is a bad thing, such a valorisation of public over domestic space is almost always gendered.”
  4. There are quite a lot of people arguing — in one form or another — that churches are the people not the buildings, and that one can meet God anywhere.

It will be ten years ago next year that I resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral over the attitude of the cathedral to the Occupy protesters. I resigned because I couldn’t go along with the decision to call in the police to evict the protestors.

During that period of my ministry, I became acutely aware that the church can indeed prioritise the needs of its buildings over the core message. And for a period of time, I would probably have bulldozed every last church in the country. I saw them as stone idols — fetishes that the church had come to value more than its people.

But returning to parish ministry has taught me what a mistake it was to think this way. As a parish priest I am rooted in a particular space, and I continue to pray in this space in succession to a long line of clergy who have done the same. And I do so as a way of seeking connection between the people who live here and the God who is above, and exists over time. “Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me.” It’s a kind of spiritual anchoring.

Some of the stories that people most cherish about their church buildings are those of their priests praying there in adversity. My current parish church was blown up by Nazi bombers during the Blitz. Getting back to pray in there is a part of the parish’s story of overcoming evil. That’s why, for instance, priests felt it so important to get back into Norte Dame Cathedral to say Mass as soon as possible after the fire. It was a refusal to be beaten. And that is such an important message.

In a parish like mine, with such a transitory population, the solid permanence of the church building is an expression of the continuity of God’s love over time. And I believe my parishioners would see it as a dereliction of duty were I not continually to pray in this place.

The former Dean of Durham cathedral, Michael Sadgrove puts it particularly well:

The incumbent belongs to a sacral, social and legal symbolic system that connects him/her to the geographical parish and its church. The priest goes into church not as a private person with rights and privileges but in a representative capacity, to serve.
- Michael Sadgrove

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.