“Our preparation is taking place with thoroughness. Visiting a church for individual prayer, benefitting from the sacredness of that space, can be done safely and confidently.”
Nichols, who is president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, continued: “Not every Catholic church will be open on June 15. Local decisions and provision have to lead this process. But it is a great blessing, for individuals and for the benefit of all in society, that church doors will again be open to all who long to pray there for the peace and grace we need today.”
“This first step enables us to learn and prepare for those that will take us to a fuller use of our churches, for the celebration of Mass and other sacraments. We await that time with deep longing but patient understanding that the protection of the health of our society, especially of the most vulnerable, is a proper cause for caution and care.”
The breakthrough came after talks between government officials and religious leaders through a body known as the Places of Worship Taskforce, led by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Faith Minister Stephen Greenhalgh.
In a statement June 7, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “This move recognizes the spiritual and mental health benefits for people being able to pray in their place of worship, and that for some people this cannot be replicated by praying at home.”
“New guidance will be published shortly to ensure the limited reopening of places of worship can be done safely and in line with social distancing guidelines. This will recommend the thorough cleaning of shared spaces, hand cleansing at entry and exit and asking worshipers to bring their own items such as a prayer mat or religious text instead of sharing or using communal ones.”
It added that “communally led prayer, worship or devotion,” including Mass, would “not be possible at this stage.”
“The government will continue to work with the Taskforce towards the full reopening of places of worship as soon as the scientific advice allows,” it said.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury joined Nichols in welcoming the government’s decision.
In a June 8 statement, he said: “I am delighted the government has recognized how the priority of prayer and worship are central to the common good and to the re-building of society after the lockdown.”
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“Every church stands as an invitation to pray and it was one of the most painful aspects of our national lockdown to see every church door locked and barred as people sought places of prayer and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”
“The opening of church doors for private prayer will form a first step towards the public celebration of the Mass and the sacraments.”
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the government has permitted churches to host funerals, under strict conditions, and to livestream liturgies, but not to perform baptisms or weddings.
Nichols had put increasing pressure on the government to set a date for reopening churches with a series of public statements.
In a May 14 radio interview he called for “a bit more sensitivity from the government” towards the concerns of Catholics. In his Pentecost Sunday homily May 31, he questioned why car showrooms were being permitted to reopen ahead of churches.
Other English bishops also made public appeals for churches to reopen, including Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth, and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth.