The Christian Way of Emerging from Lockdown
With the relaxation of legal restrictions in England on Monday the duty of care becomes a matter of “personal responsibility.” As Christians, our responsibility is not just to ourselves, but to others. This is the guiding principle in the way by which, other the next few weeks, we will hopefully emerge from lockdown in our worship and social activity in Church. We will do things in a way which ensures Church remains a safe place, minimising any risk of coronavirus transmission, and also in a way which reassures anyone who is nervous, vulnerable or concerned. We do this in order to put into practice the commandment of the Lord: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Masks and Face Coverings
Masks and face coverings are worn primarily to protect others. Especially in enclosed spaces where people are present for an extended period, the wearing of masks or face coverings is still highly recommended (or even expected) by Government and by the Bishops’ Conference. In our desire to care for each other, as Jesus commands, we should all be willing to continue to wear masks or face coverings in Church at this time, especially given the extremely high rates of transmission of the Delta variant in our area. This is an act of service and sacrifice, where we put our own preferences and feelings in second place to our neighbour: wearing a mask in Church is an act of love, seeking to safeguard and protect the health of other members of our parish family. I would therefore expect that we continue to wear masks or face coverings in Church for the next few weeks: hopefully by September developments in the vaccination rollout will make this unnecessary, though we will have to keep a close eye on infection rates in our local area.
Social Distancing and Church Capacity
From 19th July all legal restrictions regarding social distancing are lifted, and capacity limits on Churches will no longer apply. However, both Government and the Bishops’ Conference recommend that we continue to exercise caution in this area, especially in areas (such as ours) with high infection rates. Some form of “mitigation” is still highly recommended in places where large numbers gather close together (such as Church!), either in the form of some degree of social distancing or the wearing of masks or face coverings. We will, therefore, be making a choice possible here at Saint Vincent’s: from next weekend (24th/25th July) we will be removing the social distancing requirement for the central blocks of benches (i.e. those adjoining the central aisle) but masks will still be required in those seats; two metre social distancing will remain on the side benches (i.e. those next to the walls) but mask wearing in those seats will be optional (though highly recommended – see above!) This will be reviewed week by week, in the light of infection rates or further guidance from the Diocese or Bishops’ Conference.
From the weekend of 14th/15th August we will also be removing the one-way system in Church, and Holy Communion will be returning to its normal moment in the Mass. This will mean we have to take extra care, both during communion and as people leave Church – please be patient and careful to avoid crowding and unnecessary contact with others.
Ventilation and Sanitising
An important mitigation in enclosed spaces is good ventilation, so we will be continuing to keep all the doors open throughout Mass. Not that this is too much of a problem in these warm Summer months! Studies have shown that “contact transmission” is less of a worry, so we will be reducing our sanitising regime, but Church will still be cleaned regularly.
Since transmission is mainly by means of the “aerosol effect” (i.e. out of the nose and mouth), and singing amplifies this considerably, at the recommendation of the Bishop we will not be resuming congregational singing for the time being. Hopefully by September we will be in a better position with regard to infection rates, though obviously we do not yet know what the next few weeks might bring!
It is to be noted that according to the guidance of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales certain other aspects of our liturgical life will not be resuming at this time, namely: the use of holy water stoups, shared hymnals/massbooks, the sign of peace, communion under both kinds.
Ministries in Church
We will gradually be resuming our ministries, such as altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, apparitors, etc., over the next few weeks. I will be contacting ministers directly, and we will make sure everyone is aware of any special measures that need to be taken for ministries to be carried out safely.
Social Activities (Parish Centre)
The Parish Centre will be able to reopen once we have carried out a risk assessment and a thorough cleaning, including ensuring that water tanks have been fully drained (since they have been unused for a year and a half now). Since this may take some time, and new cleaning regimes will need to be instituted, September would be a good time for us to resume our regular social activities, though as with everything else this will depend on the infection rates and any further guidance we receive.
The Bishop has asked the following statement to be included in Newsletters this weekend: “Bishop John is urging all adults, who are able to do so, to be vaccinated. Pope Francis has reminded people of the duty to be vaccinated if they are able. The Church is clear that all Catholics can take any of the vaccines on offer with a clear conscience. Even if you are at a low risk of becoming seriously ill, being vaccinated will lower the risk of transmitting the virus to somebody else who might then have a severe reaction or even die.”
This may all seem a little negative, when the Media has been talking so much about “Freedom Day”! Nevertheless one of the Christian principles of freedom is that my freedoms should not limit others’ freedoms: as I stated earlier, our response to the pandemic must always be what the Lord commanded: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Remember that the pandemic is not over, and here in Greater Manchester we are in one of the eleven regions specifically highlighted by the Government this week as areas of concern.
I will end with a short section of the statement by the Bishops of England and Wales issued on Friday: “On 19th July, the current legislative powers which assist the mitigations against the covid-19 virus transmission will be rescinded by HM Government. Nevertheless, there will be an encouragement to personal and corporate responsibility in this area; as the Prime Minister said in his most recent statement “The pandemic is not over.” Even without this legislation in place, the Church in England and Wales will be adopting a cautious approach to capacity and activity within our buildings, especially at corporate acts of worship. We are mindful of the certain fact that the Covid-19 virus is still circulating in society. Vaccines provide genuine protection against the worst effects of the virus, yet we recognise the legitimate fear on the part of some who otherwise desire to gather for Holy Mass. It is our continuing judgement, therefore, that it is not possible at the present time for all of the faithful to attend Mass on a Sunday thus fulfilling their duty to God. It is hoped that it will be possible for all Catholics in England and Wales to fulfil this most important Church precept, that of the Sunday Obligation, by the First Sunday in Advent 2021. In the meantime, all Catholics are asked to do their best to participate in the celebration of the weekly Sunday Mass and to reflect deeply on the centrality of Sunday worship in the life of the Church.”
With prayers and best wishes,
Fr James (and Arthur)