All over Europe public worship has returned, or soon will, albeit with strong social distancing and hygiene measures in place. But not in Britain or Ireland. In Britain places of worship will not be allowed to open their doors again, even for private prayer, until July 4. No date for the restoration of public worship has been announced yet.
In Ireland where I live, you can wander into a church and say a prayer but public religious services won’t be back until July 20, which is one of the latest dates in Europe, despite the fact that Ireland didn’t have a severe outbreak.
The worrying thing has been the lack of push-back by Church leaders on both islands. In Ireland, there hasn’t been a peep from the Catholic hierarchy. The contrast with their counterparts else in Europe has been extremely striking.
In Italy for example, the Catholic bishops attacked Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, when he seemed to be giving low priority to a return to public Masses. Almost immediately Conte relented and Italians have been allowed to go to Mass again, with a limit on numbers, since May 18.
In France, a group of Catholics took a case to court and the court announced that public worship had to be restored again, that the Government’s ban was disproportionate. Public Masses, with proper safety measures, have been taking place again in France since Saturday.
What explains the astonishing timidity of Church leaders on these islands compared with their counterparts elsewhere? Let me offer a suggestion: they have become so attached to the idea of health and safety that all other goods have been obscured, including freedom of worship.
They appear to believe that keeping the faithful absolutely safe is the only way to be good pastors. Hairdressers, publicans, restaurateurs, hoteliers might all be pushing for a safe, earlier return than is currently planned, but Church leaders, certainly in Ireland, seem to think it is more responsible not to make a fuss.
They have forgotten that all life involves risk. When public worship is finally restored, it will be far safer to have 40 people in a church that can fit 400 than to have a hairdresser hovering over your head for 30 minutes.
This being so, why aren’t Church leaders in Britain and Ireland pressing for a faster return to religious services? If a measure of what we value is the level of risk we are willing to take for it, then the bishops are effectively telling people that almost anything, even getting a haircut, is more important than public worship. Their message seems to be: it’s not worth the risk.
David Quinn is a columnist with The Sunday Times (Ireland)