Places of worship will be allowed to open from Monday for private individual prayer for the first time since the lockdown began in March - but full services, weddings and baptisms will still be banned until at least July 4.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, has warned of the huge challenges ahead as clergy across the region spoke of the challenges faced by places of worship by the pandemic, not least the financial impact, which may not be fully known “until the end of the year”.
The Right Rev Baines, who in May spoke out about the Prime Minister’s treatment of the lockdown activities of his senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, who travelled to County Durham from his home in London during restrictions, said reopening churches gradually and safely “is going to be more complicated than just suddenly closing it down”, and that following the Government’s guidance had become more complicated when “some of that advice has been undermined”.
“To put it bluntly, if everyone just follows their instincts it is not going to be workable,” he said. “It’s a bit more frustrating than when it was at the beginning when (the message) was very simple - lock down. It becomes less simple as you begin to open up - and the next stage will probably be a lot more challenging than the first phase.
“I am telling my clergy, if you’re not ready, don’t do it. This isn’t a competition.”
A Government task force including leaders from the Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths has been working on a plan for the “phased and safe” re-opening of places of worship in step three of its lifting of lockdown measures since May. Last month, the House of Bishops relented to pressure to allow clergy into churches for the live-streaming of services.
But churches were only told last Sunday about re-opening for prayer.
The Rt Rev Frank White, Bishop of Hull and Priest-in-Charge at Hull Minster, said discussions were ongoing as to how it could reopen the space - the largest parish church in Britain by floor space.
“This is the real test for us, and it has been unexpectedly brought forward,” he said. For a church building of our size, it raises significant logistical challenges.”
The Rt Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, the Bishop of Ripon, said practicalities such as the ability to clean buildings in between use had to be taken into account, and a “one size fits all” approach to re-opening would not be possible.
She said: “It is a lot harder to emerge than it is to lock down, and we are only just navigating our way through that. There will have to be a lot of local decisions made.
“We have big community churches and tiny rural churches, and rural churches may not have the capacity, for example, to clean in between things.
“It would be very easy for a church to think ‘well we’ve failed’ because they can’t offer the same kind of worship experience they were able to offer previously.
“One thing I know is that we will come out of this - perhaps with a greater focus, a greater energy and a greater commitment to be present in the community.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Protecting the health and safety of the British public remains our number one priority and we will issue the guidance as soon as it’s sensible to do so, ensuring that places of worship have sufficient time to put measures in place to safely welcome worshippers back.”