X Close

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 4
May 2020

Let priests pray in their churches

It is an act of defiance against C-19
by Giles Fraser
On 24 March, Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to C of E clergy that churches would be closed for worship

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

Join the discussion

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
steve taylor
steve taylor
3 years ago

This ban on Anglican clergy not being allowed in their own churches is quite bizarre. Roman Catholic priests have continued to offer mass in their own churches throught this trying time, and many of the masses are televised and watched at home by the faithful. I fail to see why the Anglican church cannot do something similar.

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
3 years ago
Reply to  steve taylor

Indeed. But it makes excellent sense if you’re a bishop who doesn’t actually believe in Christianity – or, to be slightly kinder, you believe in what C.S. Lewis called, in The Screwtape Letters, ‘Christianity Plus’. Here’s Screwtape advising his nephew:

“What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know”Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New
Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith
Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and
Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be
Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.”

In Lewis’s time, Christianity and Feminism wasn’t a thing, but you get the idea.

Gill Nurse
Gill Nurse
3 years ago

Have Anglican churches ever been closed during our country’s history? In the week preceding lockdown, my parish church was busier than ever during the day, with people going in to pray in unusually high numbers.

To me, there seems to be no reason why the church cannot be open as normal for prayer and worship, as most churches are large enough to practice the now sadly ubiquitous social distancing.
I am ashamed to belong to a country where the capitulation by its bishops to the government went ahead as it did.

I trust that churches will rapidly be reopened.

Tony C
Tony C
3 years ago

I’ve actually signed up to UnHerd / Disquus just so I can say how right GF is on this. I write as a Catholic whose ecclesiology is quite different from his, but his understanding of the role of the Parish Priest, and of what the physical building in the defined local space is for, is spot on.

Robert Harvey
Robert Harvey
3 years ago

I also just signed up to support this point. It struck me at the time there was no logic in forbidding clergy from their church unless you believe that the buildings are an encumbrance and this might be a handy time to prove that point.
I respect the sincerity of belief that the church is (only) the people, but personally I get something extra from the building and the ritual and the music, and I think many do.
Maintaining beautiful rural churches with small congregations is a big problem, but I don’t think an opportunistic no-deal-Brexit solution under cover the covid crisis is sensible or legitimate

3 years ago

I thought the picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury holding a service on Easter Sunday on the kitchen table pathetic as we had just watched the Easter vigil followed by High Mass with three priests and a complement of altar servers and even the triumphal Vidor on the organ to come out to. I might add that it still didn’t compensate for physically being present.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
3 years ago

Giles Fraser is right. And to one of your commentators, please don’t use Hebrew Scripture to justify your adherence to bullying by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Exodus is a Jewish affair and we are still attending synagogue occasionally, or some of us are, while taking all safeguarding precautions seriously. I also heard the ABC from his kitchen – he and his wife looked like death warmed up – and as for his assembly to the nation’s school children, he reminded me of nothing less than the wily fox in Pinocchio. There is one reason and one reason only that your beautiful buildings are being closed and that’s because the present ABC is a business man, interested mainly in finance. What a great opportunity to save money by closing all those wasteful buildings. Even worse, he has recently compared his relationship with fellow clergy as akin to ‘herding cats’. This website isn’t called Unherd for nothing – this is the time for Anglicans to practise civil disobedience – and you won’t even be breaking the law! Incidentally, I enjoyed my own Passover Seder for the first time from my kitchen table which is indeed the hub of Judaism ( not simply for culinary reasons, but because it is the centre of books, learning and argument, with children at centre stage) – but as for the ABC, some of us who have trained Anglican clergy for years are in despair about how your Church is going with its present non-leadership. It will only need one of two of you in the Church to break the ABC’s hold over you and to do what you know – in all conscience – is right for your Church – otherwise the buildings will rot and be available again when he eventually decides to give you the go-ahead. A church building is like a muscle – if you don’t use it, it will waste away in the end.


Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
3 years ago

As somebody who believes in freedom, in as much as we should all be free to take any action that as far as we know does not harm others, obviously I would not support the measures of the Anglican Church Archbishops, though as not a member of that Church, it could well be argued this is none of my business.

I would however argue that it probably is, in the sense, that I think the Archbishops have taken their otherwise inexplicable and ostensibly suicidal or fratricidal actions in telling priests not to pray in their own churches, for the sole reason of protecting or enhancing “their public image”, in an over-zealous display of imagined “self-righteousness.”

It’s a problem we all have in life general, to try to bridge the gap between what we’d often like to do, and how our action will often also be judged by others, and thus affect “our public image.”

For example, it is not yet clear if we are all going to be forced to wear face masks as the lockdown eases (not much of that happening in Germany I would point out, from seeing a picture of a busy high street on Saturday in Dortmund)


(3rd photo down)

But in one sense (not as I’d welcome it in the slightest) it would be an easier decision if such an order was given.

Because if not, we are then going to have to decide (and already do so, whenever shopping or outdoors) whether to choose to wear a face mask or not, or possibly be seen as irresponsible if we don’t.

The right thing for the government to do in my view would be to actually state clearly that nobody outside of operating theatres or hospital staff is expected to wear masks unless they really want to, because the need for us to tolerate one another’s physical public presence once more, is of far greater importance than stopping the threat of a not extraordinary viral disease.

The difficulty with the above statement is that there is an argument going on whether or not covid-19 is an extraordinary viral disease.

Because the official line seems to be that it is, despite even official recognition that this is not likely to cause any more than the usual number of deaths of a bad year of seasonal flu, if that.

The argument of course runs that it was only the lockdown that prevented much larger fatality numbers.

But for those who disagree, who if one looks at the responses to Peter Hitchens’ latest Mail on Sunday article, are numerous, and widely supported by many very high ranking scientists, this has been the most massive attack on human freedom in known human history, so it is hardly surprising the Church has also become a casualty of it.

The problem being for the Archbishops that they dare not go against the official narrative, as they know that the survival of the Church itself is in question, in a largely secular society, most of which really only sees Churches as essential for deaths, and maybe also weddings and christenings/baptisms.

And in which even more worryingly for the Anglican Church, there is a growing number of fanatical “PC” activists whose almost main goal in life is to separate Church from State.

As the RC Church is not the State one, it can therefore ignore its public image in the way that the C of E cannot.

So likewise, the Anglican Church has felt the need to yield one principle after another to the political correctness groups: first women priests, then gay ones, then gay marriage, abortion, etc, etc, and so it goes on, which the RC Church has resisted, because it does not have its connection to the State to protect unlike the C of E.

So the Archbishops are trying to project a “whiter than white” image, lest the equivalent of “the Femen” start attacking them and intensifying the demands to separate Church from State.

As a supporter of religion in general as a right, as long as it doesn’t call for the destruction of other religions, or force its will on those who do not wish to adhere to a religious view, I feel it necessary to point out that what this means is that the Anglican Church has now submitted to living in fear.

All religious people have been “in a lockdown” in the modern era, since Darwin probably, but especially so in the last 50 or 60 years since the rise of extreme feminist and atheist activism.

A viewpoint that really wants to see the whole idea of a God in any form completely extinguished from society and human thought.

It is more than significant to me, that it is basically scientific authority which has ordered this lockdown, a scientific authority that to me seems more questionable than any religious one.

That is to say, regardless of how much they may bluster, scientists cannot actually prove no God exists.

I have argued the case here with people about that, so won’t do so again, except to point out that God as a hypothetical infinite or even wholly non-physical Being, would have to be beyond any material confines, or space and time considerations, and thus is beyond any scientific ability to prove or disprove, so completely beyond the range of material or empirical science.

That this does not satisfy the atheist scientist – i.e. cause them to humbly admit their ignorance on this matter – is merely because they do not like to admit this truth.

And thus illogically try to insist that those who claim there is a God need to prove it, overlooking that of course there are equally no empirical means to prove such existence, apart from perhaps “miracles” or “direct experiences of God” which the atheist scientist therefore denies the existence of or categorizes as delusions.

So I think we must be clear, that it is the effective rule of society by mainly atheist science (I’ve seen polls suggesting only 9% or less of scientists are not atheist) which had led directly to this lockdown.

Academia in general is by the way mostly atheist now, increasingly dominated by the same “political correctness” obsessed people who are attacking the Churches.

So atheist science has effectively overruled the Church, by showing its connection is far more powerful and influential than any Church – it has effectively told the State to shut down normal life, including the Church, and the Church leaders have submissively bowed down to this mass destruction of human rights and human freedom on these dubious scientific grounds.

Of course, the government itself has been effectively blackmailed by the mainly atheist media at the Guardian and the BBC, and most of the rest of the media, even if not atheist, has bowed down to the official consensus, out of fear of “their public image” also.

Note therefore, how whether or not covid-19 is an extraordinary viral threat, how the whole population has been placed into a pandemic of mass fear.

I’d say bullied personally, traumatised.

So traumatised apparently, that now perhaps more than half the population are afraid to return to “normal life.”

This is in fact a unique opportunity for the Churches – not to surrender to the bullying from science or the State, but rather to defy both.

To point out, as does Peter Hitchens, who I would honestly suggest is the nearest thing to a genuine vicar this country has at the moment, at least one of any public prominence, that the damage being done to the society by the lockdown is far worse than any possible consequences of the disease.

It’s a direct attack on the human spirit, an unprecedented in human history terrorising of the national and international populations, and of course the Draconian overreactions of the police supported by Draconian government law is part of that terror.

A terror that makes especially older and more law abiding people, who have likely never had a more than fleeting encounter with the police in their whole lives, now afraid even to leave their own homes for fear of police interrogation as to “reasonable excuse.”

A fear that is intensified by the confusion about what exactly they can and can’t do.

Not only in fear of the police incidentally, but even their neighbours or passers by in the streets, who may choose to report, or demonise them or even attack them, as happened to some totally innocent Chinese people, one of whom even had his nose broken by a gang of “covid-19 empowered” thugs.

So we find even Archbishops, persons supposedly of unusually high intellect and morality, are confused about what they should and shouldn’t be doing and ordering their lower ranking clergy to do.

So what hope for the old and isolated, lacking support, mobility and money, and quite likely on various forms of medication, and suffering from confusion already in their everyday lives?

Should any Church be surrendering to fear in this or any other time?

Yes, there are times when the level of hostility is such against religious organisations, that they are forced underground, as their very lives are in peril from the State itself.

But this is not such a time.

As to this specific issue.

It is very far from being a mere “retreat to the kitchen”, to surrender the Churches, which are far more than symbols, and even the ordinary members of the public know this.

They know that there is some kind of “sanctuary” inside a Church that exists nowhere else.

And for that reason, as in the Thomas ‘A Beckett case, it has always been “sacrilege” for the State to invade a Church, the greatest imaginable outrage, carried out throughout history only by murderous dictators like the Nazis.

Just consider how the saints and martyrs of history would have viewed such government actions, as forbidding even priests to set foot in their own Churches, let alone some of their own hierarchy ordering it.

So I hesitate to use a humiliating analogy, but I feel it is a self-inflicted one, to say it is as if the Archbishops when ordered to close their churches, had been asked by the State to clean the Minister’s shoes, and didn’t stop there, and decided to kiss them too, quite voluntarily.

Not all places and spaces are the same, and the public and the congregation knows it, so the clergy should know it above all.

For as the Bible said “Kneel, for this is holy ground.”

Not every ground is holy ground – Churches are despite all, places where the purest thoughts and deeds are routinely expressed, where evil deeds that are carried out in so many other places are seldom carried out there.

They are sanctuaries, places where we ask for forgiveness and mercy, and aid for our fellow men and women, not for help to commit selfish deeds and for our enemies to be destroyed.

To deny priest their own Churches is a form of spiritual castration therefore, and ought to be seen as such.

Just as in the case of a man whose appetites are mainly sensual, physical castration would be equally abhorrent to him.

3 years ago

Bring on the clowns with their pointed hats and frocks talking to their imaginary god, They toil not neither do they spin but fleece their sheep (human) to live in luxury

Mark Brown
Mark Brown
3 years ago

The building is not important? Another male-only failing? Corporate worship is peripheral?

OK, I’ll take the bait.

1. A church building, by being consecrated and the site of regular prayer, worship, and Holy Communion, becomes holy ground, a spiritually charged and protected place to meet God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2. Corporate worship (2 or 3 of God’s children gathered together) indoors, especially on holy ground, can and should be an extraordinary experience of supernatural cleansing, nourishment, joy and peace. (Archbishop of Canterbury Wm. Temple articulated worship’s role in heavenly retooling one’s human faculties, in “Readings In St. John’s Gospel,” at 68.)

3. The Wuhan-induced interregnum from corporate worship in church buildings has highlighted for me the unique, God-given blessings of such worship.

Mark Brown
Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd

San Angelo, Texas

3 years ago

The extraordinary thing about all of this is when did CofE clergy suddenly start listening to their Bishops? None of their requests or statements has any authority in either Canon or English Law. Bearing in mind the number of CofE clergy who completely disregard huge chunks of Canon Law because it doesn’t suit their churchmanship both High and Low, I can’t see what all the whining is about. If you want to go pray in your church which is legally yours under Canon Law go bloody do it but stop whingeing about it liked spoilt children. Many people have lost their jobs, businesses and livelihoods not to mention their lives. We are still being paid we have a job and a roof over our heads that’s not about to be repossessed, seriously we need to get out of our churchy bubble and start living in the real world.

Christina Sheppard
Christina Sheppard
3 years ago

I find this discussion about church buildings mystifying. I felt very encouraged watching Archbishop Welby in his kitchen, this is where the early church began. I am not sure why it is of any import whether a priest has a service in his or her church, or in their home. God is far bigger than that. Having a service to link a community on Zoom is the important thing, not where the minister is standing. Is it more “holy” in church? Maybe that is the reasoning. Baffling. Perhaps we could use the same degree of energy to work out the best way to support a suffering community. I think ultimately that is how you grow the life of a church and show Gods love in the world. Once this is over, the church building will open again and if practising Christians have reached out in this time of crisis, to support people in difficult situations, that is what will bring people back in again, not whether a vicar led a service in an empty church ( a dismal thought). I say this as someone who has been a PCC member for 30 years and spent most of those years repairing the church building for future generations. I have no agenda to close churches, or any other underlying agenda, other than to be part of a mission to bring God to a world sorely in need of him.