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Posted on Tue 21 December 2021

Churches should not be shutting their doors at Christmas time

Christmas is the one time in the year when large numbers do want to go to church: children go to Crib and Christingle services, thousands flock to carol concerts, and churches are usually packed to the gunnels for Midnight Mass. Throughout Advent, I have noticed people coming back to church, sometimes after long periods of self-isolation. Many are tired and depressed and are longing for some cheer and hope.

This is the churches’ big opportunity to get across their message that there is good news about our ultimate worth in God’s eyes and that the world is under his providential care, new scares about coronavirus and climate change notwithstanding. It is a time to minister to people’s anxiety and brokenness, to help them meet one another and to gather for prayer, praise and celebration.

The arrival of the omicron variant, however, has put this time of preparation and celebration in jeopardy. There seems little doubt that the variant spreads quickly and that there is a need for care and caution. At the same time, however, the data from South Africa show that the illness caused by the variant is mostly mild. It is true that there are differences of demography between South Africa and the UK, and that the situation may change if new evidence emerges. But an accelerated programme of “booster” vaccinations does appear to be providing increased protection to the population at large.

Even before the latest speculation about new restrictions, it seemed that pessimistic projections and “worst-case scenarios” had induced a spirit of fear in people. Churches and other organisers of events have been going beyond the guidelines and cancelling concerts and services. Even outdoor carol concerts have been stopped, cathedrals are limiting the numbers of those who can attend, and Midnight Mass, for many the climax of Christmas, is either being cancelled or restricted in terms of numbers of attendees.

We have now got used to the captivity of lockdown and to the removal of basic liberties for families and friends to meet, for people to gather for entertainment or education or, indeed, for worship. The more often they are taken away, the more we will get used to not having them. Once the principle is established that liberties can be curtailed for what the government of the day deems to be sufficient cause, they could be restricted for other reasons.

Churches and cathedrals are, by their very nature, places for meeting, for learning, for music and for worship. Such places are necessary to give us a sense of belonging and of cohesion as communities, and for the transmission of common values. My plea to them, at this time, is to give heed to their mission, to balance risk with opportunity, and not to be overtaken by the prevalent spirit of fear.

While every precaution should be taken, let us not go beyond what is required and let us not close our doors to the lonely, the needy and the anxious, but go out to serve them with confidence in our calling. The gathering, singing and celebration all lead to and are for the sake of, as John Betjeman saw it, the core of our message: “That God was man in Palestine/ And lives today in bread and wine.” Let us proclaim this message boldly to all who need to and want to hear it this Christmastide!

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