The Government’s proposals for ending lockdown suggested that it might be possible for places of worship to open again from July onwards. Back in May, I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister encouraging him to engage with local churches on the ground and to provide a clear, phased plan for leaving lockdown.
In recent days, I have heard a number of comments not just from churches but from other faiths too and also other parts of society such as the hospitality sector complaining both that they feel that teir voices are not being heard and that the Government seems to be slow at providing guidelines and a timed plan.
To be fair, I think expecting the Government to do this is asking an impossible task. The Government cannot be expected to know all the details of the situation on the ground, the specific needs and the specific obstacles which make opening both urgent and difficult. Centralised, top down plans often tend to fall at this hurdle.
Whilst the Government has set up a taskforce to help set out the guidelines, its numbers are limited to a few people, it is difficult for it to represent the vast variety or traditions within each single religion. Christianity is represented by The Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Nichols. In other words, it is represented by two people from very similar traditions in terms of sacramentalism and ecclesiology. It would be like asking someone from Harrogate to describe what it is like to live in Yorkshire or assuming that the American Tourist from San Francisco must have met your friend who lives in New York at some time.
How can the Archbishop of Canterbury effectively represent the needs, opportunities and challenges presented by the rich variety of church backgrounds, high and low church, Black Pentecostal and Conservative Evangelical, prayer-book and worship band, urban inner city and country village? Then expecting different religious leaders to be able to put together a single set of guidelines and timetable across the different religions suggests to me that this is a project designed to create delay, frustration and confusion.
It does not need to be like that. I very quickly drew up a possible strawman for how Evangelical churches could begin to return the other day. Of course it isn’t the finished product and it would need fleshing out and testing but it shows that it is possible for those on the ground who know their communities to think ahead (it’s part of what we are trained to do and have experience of doing. Planning ahead, carrying out risk assessments, considering different scenarios is actually bread and butter work to your average local pastor or parish priest. We know the contexts and we know the people, their needs and their likely reactions.
So, here is a suggestion. Instead of telling church leaders (and those from other faith communities too) to sit back and wait and see whether or not we can move out of lockdown from July and what that process will look like, why not involve us? We want to help because we care about doing things in a way that loves our neighbours and protects from risk of COVID-19. We believe that our presence in local communities is itself a good thing. So, we want to get this right. We have no intention of being reckless or going off on our own.
However, things would work more effectively if the Government set out the constraints and parameters based on the latest SAGE advice. We could then develop phased plans based on that advice. As evidence and experience develops, the plans can be flexible to either delay stages or expedite them.
This approach would be beneficial to all. It would take the pressure off of the Government and its Task force, it would draw more people into the process enabling a sense of consent and consensus. It would improve communication and it would be owned by local communities leading to greater buy in.