Back to Church Amid Pandemic: Where Does the British Church Go From Here?
Three British bishops point the way.
LONDON — The Church across the world faces huge pastoral challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world has changed and so has the place of the Church in relation to that new world. In most countries Sunday Mass is no longer an obligation. As permitted under various health restrictions, attendance at religious services is often a fraction of the numbers before COVID emerged. Formerly thriving parishes have seen a dramatic fall in numbers coming to Mass and devotions and a concomitant impact on finances, so much so that some are beginning to question the long-term viability of these same parishes.
As with many other institutions in society, the Church ponders where to go from here.
To figure out what happens next for the Church in Britain, the Register contacted Bishop John Keenan of Paisley, Scotland, and Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, both in England. All three dioceses are a mix of the rural and urban, the inner city and the suburban; all have long-established and newer Catholic communities within them.
So, first off, in relation to the Sunday obligation: Is that now a thing of the past?
“No, I do not think so,” says Bishop Egan, “although some will find its restoration contentious. Its suspension is like the temporary removal of a safety barrier along the roadside. Currently, the capacity of our churches is reduced because of COVID-safety protocols. Some of our priests have been putting on extra Masses and confessions at times suited to workers and families. So I have been encouraging people to go to Mass during the week if they cannot get in on Sunday.”
Bishop Davies sees the Sunday obligation as “something very much of the future!” Nevertheless, he explains how “in the return [of parishioners] to the Mass we are seeing how this fidelity of a smaller number stands out as the hallmark of our Catholic commitment to put the Holy Eucharist first in our week and first in our lives. We can’t yet quantify the full impact of church closures and restricted numbers on the number who will fulfill this joyful obligation. Yet I can never fail to be moved when seeing the faithful gathered to the maximum number presently possible in our churches.”
Bishop Keenan sees the need for a definite return to the age-old Church-prescribed practice of Sunday Mass attendance. “My sense is that it may be worthwhile for us bishops to consider penciling in and publicizing a Sunday to our priests and people for restoring the obligation, say the first Sunday of Advent. We might then lift the dispensation [of the Sunday obligation], which would mean a call to most Catholics to return to Sunday Mass, apart from those required or advised to self-isolate.”
Bishop Keenan feels that any Catholic honestly worried about risk to one’s personal health from infection could still be exempted. Such fear, he believes, is “a reasonable excuse, and any Catholic coming to a prudential personal judgment of the gravity of the risk would be excused. Parish priests might grant such local dispensations to calm the sensitive consciences among the elderly and vulnerable.” He senses it as important for the bishops to consult parish clergy before reinstituting the obligation “and take their advice [as] they know best the situation on the ground.” Any new arrangements, he continues, will also likely mean more Mass provision to accommodate a return to the pre-COVID numbers attending Mass, while distancing or caps on attendance remain in place. Like Bishop Davies, his Scottish brother bishop favors “repeating the Sunday Mass liturgy over a number of mid-week evening Masses, which would allow the faithful to fulfill their Sunday obligation by coming to Mass any day of the week. Such a provision should allow all those able and comfortable to be accommodated.”
As the obligation remains important, how do we encourage people to return to church?
Bishop Keenan is of the view that any full return to Sunday Mass by the faithful will not come about until the dispensation for the Sunday obligation is lifted and the reason for the return of the obligation explained fully. This is because he recognizes that such an announcement “is not going to be easy” and that some form of “personal invitation to return” is also necessary. “Parishes have registers, so perhaps we could send a letter to all parishioners from the bishop and parish priest. It will take time for Catholics to get back into the habit of Sunday Mass and to regain their confidence,” he told the Register, before adding, “We will all have to be patient.”
Bishop Davies feels that “the decision to return to Mass comes from within.” But he senses that “the unprecedented months of lockdown have presented a dramatic moment for the renewal of our Eucharistic faith” and that the imperative to return to the Mass “flows from the recognition of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. This question of Eucharistic faith is placed in even sharper relief by public-health restrictions requiring the sacred liturgy to be celebrated in a way that allows no element of socializing and no communal singing.” As a result, he reflects, “The people are in so many ways returning to the silence of the Eucharist.”
Bishop Egan sees the question of how to encourage the faithful to return to Sunday Mass as a clear opportunity. “We need to offer a new catechesis about the need to receive the sacraments,” he says. “It is not enough to think: ‘I can pray anywhere’ or ‘I can follow Mass online.’ We are disciples of Christ, and he wants us to eat his flesh and drink his blood: You cannot do that over a computer.”
Even if people do return in similar numbers to those seen pre-pandemic, in the short term, due not least to financial shortfalls, is there a need to restructure parishes in the interim?
Bishop Davies strikes a somber note in his reply. “At this stage, I think we can say with certainty that the Church will be moving into the new year with reduced material resources. It will be at the turn of the year that we will best be able to assess the effects of the dramatic fall seen in parish income during the time since March. The greatest concern is for those poorest parishes that are presently struggling to meet incoming bills.”
This sober view is echoed by Bishop Egan: “What is becoming clear is that the Church will have fewer resources for her mission. I can imagine parishes, Mass centers and even some Catholic schools closing, but this will release finances for new ministries and creative endeavors.” He goes on to add, “Our Lord never promised full churches. … What really counts today is a personal, passionate love for Jesus, with deep faith and commitment, clarity of witness, courage and doing deeds of charity.”
Bishop Keenan’s experience in the Diocese of Paisley is more heartening. “I was deeply moved to witness the many ways Catholics reached out with their weekly donations to make sure their priests and parishes survived the loss of Sunday Mass collection income,” he says. “They posted contributions in the post, put envelopes under the parish house door, contacted their banks to set up direct debits and went to our websites looking for online portals. The effect in the [Paisley] diocese is that, across the board, our parish bank books are the same level as pre-lockdown.” He sees the pandemic as bringing about a positive change whereby the greatest portion of parish income “is now from online and electronic transfer rather than through the [collection] plate.”
For many, these are dismal times. What signs of Christian hope are there currently?
Bishop Davies notes that he has invited the clergy and people of the Shrewsbury Diocese to entrust the year ahead to St. Joseph. “I am confident that by looking to his example and asking the prayers of the Guardian of the Holy Family, we will be able to recognize the finger of God tracing a great and loving purpose through this time of trial. In this same spirit, I would urge people to ‘Go to Joseph’ to help us find the way ahead and always to treasure the gifts of faith and grace God has entrusted to us.”
Bishop Keenan speaks a similar hope-filled note: “The good thing about the Church is we have been here before in history, through hardship and times of persecution. We have a rich treasury of experience about how our forefathers embraced their times with trust in God and with the energy that comes only from deep prayer and personal purification. …”
“Our God is a God of promises,” he reminds us, “and he shows time and again that he knows how to keep them, never abandoning his Church to the wind and waves. We are an Easter people whose hope radiates among each other.”
Bishop Egan, too, is clear and confident about the future: “We may be in the midst of a pandemic, but the Risen Lord is with us. Even now, he is giving us the grace to tackle the crisis, care for the sick and find solutions. He will be with us until the end of time, and so there is no need for despondency. I am full of hope that the Church will continue her mission, despite the sadness and suffering currently endured.”