‘Sioux Grey Wolf’ writes: The UK Government is conducting a review of how it handled the Covid-19 pandemic. We already know some of the successes (chiefly the roll-out of the vaccine) and some of the scandals (PPE deals, parties). More will be revealed. But how did the Church of England respond the biggest crisis since the Second World War? Bishops, especially those who sit in the House of Lords, are rightly keen to hold the Government to account and speak truth to power—but who does that to them?
So let’s have a look at how the hierarchy of the Church handled the pandemic.
The flurry of communiqués from the Bishops began on 24th March 2020 with this stern injunction:
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. A notice explaining this should be put on the church door (please find template attached). We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus. […]
Our Church buildings are closed but the Church must continue to support and encourage our communities making use of telephones and other forms of technology to keep in touch with people and ensure pastoral care is maintained, and as shepherds of Christ’s flock we are committed to making this happen. […] Our church buildings are closed for public worship and for private prayer.
Without rehashing the whole appalling episode there are a few key details in that letter which stand out as emblematic the entire debacle.
We could start at the very beginning, with the address line: “From the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, to be shared with all clergy.” Except the first part of that was wrong. It was from the House of Bishops (or possibly a meeting of the Archbishops and Diocesan Bishops—with their usual opacity it’s hard to tell). At any rate it most certainly was not from the entire episcopacy. Assistant, Area and Suffragan Bishops were understandably angry about having a letter sent in their name without their knowledge or consent. And this wasn’t just any letter. More on that later.
So how did this happen? The false attribution came from The Rt Revd Tim Thornton, the then Bishop of Lambeth. It was, it seems, an honest mistake—and one that was corrected in subsequent letters. Although by “corrected” I mean “not repeated”; it was never acknowledged, much less apologised for. So to all intents and purposes the error in first letter still stands. This—I think New Testament scholars would call it epistolary pseudepigrapha—might seem like a minor quibble, and compared to what came next it is.
First, at least one Bishop (The Rt Revd James Langstaff, the then Bishop of Rochester) reinforced what was already a pretty unequivocal letter with the threat of disciplinary action. He ordered clergy in the diocese to pray “at home, on the phone, or online”. But the very next day (Tuesday March 25th) that very same Bishop led prayers in the House of Lords, in person (and presumably collected his £323 daily allowance. Nice work if you can get it.)
Second, some clergy realised that the Great Lock Out looked…well, unlawful. Incumbents own their churches; the Bishops’ command exceeded their authority: it was ultra vires. Panic and overreach are not the marks of good leadership but they were the defining features of the Bishops’ attitudes and actions. And it seemed the Bishops, in their haste, reached for and pulled levers of power that were not, and have never been, theirs to pull. The Ven Dr Edward Dowler went on the record as saying:
The Archbishops’ and bishops’ ruling also has doubtful legal basis. In law, church buildings are vested in their incumbents, who, at their induction, take possession of the temporalities of the benefice. It is not clear that the bishops have any legal ability to issue apparent management instructions that incumbents should not pray in their churches. Legally speaking, this is a matter of conscience for individual clergy, in particular those who are incumbents.
Someone must have checked this with a lawyer and realised it was true. So three days later on 27th March, a new missive from the bishops descended from the ether. Suddenly it was all only “advice”. Thus:
The decision to close the church buildings and to prevent them being used for streaming has been a very difficult one. Some government advice suggests that we should be able to allow streaming from church buildings. Our advice, however, is that we should go the extra mile in following the clear public health advice and guidance which is to stay at home and to stay safe.
Then the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seemed to backtrack even further on The Andrew Marr show on Easter Sunday (BBC1, 12 April). Visibly discomfited, he tried to talk his way out of the mess by saying it was about sharing in, and solidarity with, the privations of others. But that’s just pious nonsense: the bishops have never asked their clergy to be, say, celibate or starving just so we can share in what others involuntarily suffer. And there’s no virtue in imposing unnecessary self-denial on others anyway; quite the opposite. When challenged by Rev Marcus Walker over the legality of banning clergy from their churches Justin Welby said: “we have given guidance, not instruction. [….] we haven’t given an instruction; so we haven’t broken canon law.”
So the entire nation was treated to the unedifying sight of the Archbishop of Canterbury awkwardly ad-libbing and gaslighting his clergy live on television. Gaslighting? Yes: remember the repeated use of the word “must” in the original letter? There is simply no way in the world that anyone could read the ad clerum of 24th March as “guidance, not instruction”. When mere parish priests get a letter from the two Archbishops that uses the word “must” seven times (almost Johannine, no?) then, believe me, they do not take it as mere guidance. (Although maybe from now on they should? That’s another problem: this sets a precedent that undermines actual instructions in the future.)
The subsequent claims that it had only ever been “advice” or “guidance” were risible and disingenuous. But if it was always intended to only ever be “guidance, not instruction” then why did the Bishop of Rochester back it up with the threat of disciplinary action? Did he misunderstand it, too, despite, signing off on it and, presumably, having had a hand in drafting it? No, claiming it was anything other than a three-line whip was an insult to the intelligence of the clergy and a self-inflicted injury to the integrity of the bishops.
The Archbishop also said it was:
a decision taken by all the bishops and it was taken with much pain and much thought and much prayer and after much discussion; so it’s not just a single person making up their mind on the spur of the moment.
Which makes the content of that initial letter all more baffling and inexcusable. Better, surely, to retract and apologise. Why pre-emptively rule out the very plausible defence that this was an understandably hasty or ill-advised statement in a fast-changing crisis? Many people would have had some sympathy if he’d said opposite that, something along the lines of “it was decided without much thought and on the spur of the moment.”
Incredibly, in that interview (and desperately trying to wriggle out of the fact that he’d forbidden clergy from praying in their own churches) the Archbishop said also:
In the Church of England the one way to get anyone to do the opposite of what you want is to give them an order. It works with all of us.
At first that sounds a lot like carte blanche for clergy (although, sadly, it probably wouldn’t stand up as a defence in the event of a CDM). But on reflection it shows how badly out of touch this powerful and privileged man is. “It works with all of us?” With respect, Your Grace, it bloody doesn’t. It might work for the Generals, but not for the troops in the trenches. You also don’t need a doctorate in textual criticism to realise it implies he did “give them an order”, thus contradicting his claim that he hadn’t. But it was live and he was squirming, or squirming as much as an Old Etonian ever does. All told it was an exquisitely excruciating interview. I was embarrassed by and for him.
The sadness, anger, bemusement and bewilderment felt by many Church of England clergy at being unnecessarily (and probably illegally) locked out of their churches by the bishops for more than six weeks spread from the pages of the Church Times to those of The Times itself. Hardly a good witness to the world and hardly a good look for the hapless bishops. To be fair to them those were unprecedented times; the occasional misstep or misunderstanding was to be expected. But it’s how these things are handled that counts and unconvincing “clarifications” are perhaps not the best way. When you mess up, fess up; don’t resort to mendaciousness and gaslighting.
But there’s more. There was also a ban on church funerals and an instruction to do them at crematoria. Why?
In practical terms, it’s very straightforward: that people when they go into a church leave traces on the pews, on the places they’ve been. If someone goes to the same place, within a matter of days, and the virus has been left there, they can pick it up. That’s the practical answer, and it’s a very straightforward one.
Except from an infection control point of view crematoria were much less safe. Which is better: a small, poorly ventilated municipal chapel conducting a conveyor belt of multiple funerals one after the other, or a large, spacious church with maximal social distancing taking one or two services a day at most? But what really galled was that the fact that for weeks clergy were travelling back and forth to crematoria (and touching door handles etc while there) while at the same time they were told to go into their church do do routine maintenance checks—and only for that.
So clergy could pray at the crem with half a dozen strangers, but not their alone in their own churches. (What if they happened to pray while carrying out inspections to make sure the churches were safe and secure? Presumably they had to stop themselves from so much as thinking anything directed towards the Almighty whilst in church.) You can see how crazy it all was. And it was crazy because the bishops, despite all their collective wisdom, education (and teams of advisors) made it so, and then doubled-down when questioned.
But here’s the kicker: the ban on church funerals did not come from the government, nor was it a legal requirement. Other denominations were doing funerals, safely and sensibly, in their churches and chapels while Anglican clergy (owners, remember of their buildings) were schlepping to and from small and busy crematoria.
Let’s recap with an overview.
1. You “must” (x 7) not enter church for prayer or to record/stream services (Ad Clerum, March 24th) to …
2. that was only “guidance, not instruction” (Justin Welby in the BBC interview on April 12th and the gist of the ad clerum of March 27th) to …
3. “an initial immediate phase allowing very limited access to church buildings for activities such as streaming of services or private prayer by clergy in their own parishes, so long as the necessary hygiene and social distancing precautions are taken” (House of Bishops statement on May 5th) but that is …
4. “guidance—not an instruction or law” however …
5. “The decision on the timing of when to implement the revised advice on ministers or worship leaders praying and streaming from their church buildings should be made by individual diocesan bishops.”
That’s the timeline. Eagle-eyed readers will note that the odd numbers (1, 3 and 5) are instructions, commands, orders; while the even numbers (2 and 4) are no more than advice, guidance, requests. This stodgy mixture of alternately hot and cold fare was then followed up with a large helping of Anglican fudge for dessert. But throughout it all, and to their credit, most clergy complied. They complained, but they complied.
Common sense (and possibly the rule of law) prevailed on May 7th with diocesan bishops across the land granting “permission” for clergy to enter their own churches once again. (The patronising advice to vicars going back into their buildings included this gem: “Ensure you close any windows and lock the church when you leave.” I suppose they also needed reminding to eat, breathe and get dressed?) But this gave the lie to the claim that the original ban was only advice and guidance, otherwise why the need to wait for the Diocesan Bishop’s permission before being allowed back in?
It’s easy to criticise and the bishops had to respond quickly. And I suppose it was better to overreact. But the decision to ban clergy from praying alone in their own churches wasn’t in line with government recommendations or science—and probably wasn’t legal, either. The question is not: “How could the Bishops have handled this any better?” But: “How could they have possibly handled it any worse?”
What is now needed to restore trust and goodwill is a simple apology from the House of Bishops for getting it so very wrong, both in tone and content. But any apology should be given in the same way as the offence: 1. unequivocal 2. from all of them 3. to all clergy and 4. in writing. Not piecemeal, private and padded with “buts” and “ifs” (“I’m sorry if” or “I’m sorry, but” being hateful phrases). We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it. Either way, apology or no, it behoves clergy to forgive the bishops. That, after all, is the Christian thing to do.
‘Sioux Grey Wolf’ is a parish priest somewhere in England.
“Pandemic Pandemonium And The Purple Powers” were an also-ran psychedelic band from the West Coast. Their 1968 single “Padlocked Chapel” failed to chart and is now considered a lost cult classic. It was also the working title of a short story in the Harry Potter franchise. Neither of those “facts” are true but both are more plausible than the unlikely tale told above. Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.