16 April 2020

Most Revd. Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury
Lambeth Palace
London SE1 7JU

Dear Archbishop Welby:

I am writing to express my concern over recent actions taken by the Church of England at your direction in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic which, I am very disappointed to add, enjoy the full support of the clergy in my own parish of St. Luke’s in Charlton Village. I believe the Church leadership is gravely in error in regard to the decision to bar clergy from ministering directly to the sick and dying, to forbid even the limited use of churches for private prayer, to ban clergy from entering their own churches alone for celebration of the mass, and, by all these actions, to foster the message that the Church is “non-essential” to society’s efforts to cope with this pandemic. I share these thoughts with all the humility and respect owed to your high station, with the greatest sympathy for those suffering from disease, and with full knowledge that I sit in a place very remote from the terrific fray in which you and the clergy now find yourselves. From such a distance it is always easy to throw stones. I trust you to accept that I do not do so lightly or with malice.

I hold no office in the Church, nor can I claim to have earned the right to address you on this subject through long years of labour and devotion to my faith or any personal qualities of holiness or charity. I am a backbencher and backslider of the first order. But in rare times such as these, I think it behooves all of us who perceive the danger to sound the alarm, even if that noise is heard chiefly by our own conscience and the judgment of posterity.

Like most people trying to make sense of what we are hearing and reading, I am fully persuaded that COVID-19 is a dangerous disease made more dangerous by the fact that it is poorly understood. Although with each passing day it becomes increasingly clear that the rate of infection is far higher than initially believed and the mortality rate blessedly lower than initially feared, COVID-19 remains a deadly virus that presents unique challenges for healthcare providers. For that reason, I share the view that some form of temporary societal quarantine was necessary to slow the rate of infection and soften the blow to the healthcare system. Though I believed early on and still believe that a program of targeted protection of the elderly and infirm accompanied by vigorous testing would have been far preferable to a nationwide lockdown and the resulting injury to the fabric of society, I am not an epidemiologist or a politician. I accept that people far more knowledgeable than I and with greater responsibility are called upon to make difficult decisions quickly in the face of scientific uncertainty as to the best course of action. However, it remains your duty and mine to ensure that any course of action that impinges upon our sacred freedom of worship is regarded with suspicion, continually and publicly questioned, limited in time and scope, and tailored closely to only those measures that serve a compelling and overriding societal interest. It is in this duty that I find the Church of England has failed in a most stunning fashion.

Only in the rarest of circumstances in the last 800 years have the churches in England closed their doors and forbidden the public celebration of the mass. During that time the people of this island have suffered wars, persecutions, plagues, pestilence, bombings, riots and revolutions of such terrific violence and devastation that even to enter a church to pray was at times an act of remarkable sacrifice and courage. Yet except during pandemics more deadly by orders of magnitude than the one we face today, and despite wars far more deadly than disease, the people and their priests still regularly came together in the face of danger to worship in their thousands. They did so in obedience to the Lord’s command to come together bodily, in the physical presence of other believers, and share not virtually but corporeally in the Eucharistic meal. They did so in obedience to the apostle’s enjoinder against forsaking “the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some.” They did so in obedience to the promise that “the gates of Hell” should never prevail against the Church entrusted to our care. They did so not in the mystical belief that their faith protected them from the risk of harm, but in the firm conviction that the act of worship in physical proximity to other believers was worth that risk. It is for this reason that I find your suggestion that we should not feel greatly deprived by becoming an online community because the church is “not a building” to be somewhat misguided.

The Church is not a building, but it is and always has been a physical gathering of people of likeminded faith, and for centuries those gatherings have taken place in the buildings we call churches. In fact, no one moreso than the clergy has held up these buildings as sacred places for veneration by the faithful. There is a plethora of rules surrounding whether, how and when a wedding will be permitted inside a particular church building versus somewhere else. It was only a few months ago that my own vicar was asking our tiny congregation to come up with £80,000 to refurbish the sound system in our sanctuary. Through the centuries, the Church has been content to sacrifice a far greater number of lives to the construction, maintenance, improvement, and defence of the many cathedrals of England than could be equalled today even if every victim of coronavirus dropped dead on the steps of Westminster Abbey.

I don’t by these remarks mean to question the decision to suspend public worship services temporarily. Although I might wish that we had at least attempted to hold more frequent services for fewer people at each whilst observing social distancing, perhaps such a policy would not have been feasible. It is always easy to second guess decisions made in moments of urgency under threat to human life, and I do not intend to do so here. However, given the costliness of the faith handed down to us through the centuries, one would hope we would consider the idea of closing the churches and forbidding public worship only with the gravest reluctance, the utmost sober and thoughtful deliberation and debate upon unimpeachable scientific evidence, prior consultation with the public on whose behalf we presume to act, and continuing determination to press the government on all possible lesser alternatives to a full ban. Clearly this is what Pope Francis was trying to do when he refused the government’s order to close the churches of Rome, kept them open to private prayer, encouraged priests to enter their empty churches to celebrate the mass, and exhorted them to continue to minister directly to the sick and dying despite the risk to their own health. I am sorrowed to say that his record presents a stinging and, frankly, embarrassing indictment of your own.

Far from acting with circumspection and reluctance, by banning your own priests from entering their churches for private prayer and the celebration of the mass, you have exceeded even the government’s directive. The point is not that there is something “magic” about holding church inside a church. It is that your prohibition was needless and arrogant. Catholic priests all over the UK are streaming services from inside their churches to their parishioners with no deleterious effect on the pandemic. But however pointless, you can be sure that your decision, which aggrieved some of your own clergy and was widely reported in the press, had a big impact. You succeeded in sending the public the message not just that churches are “non-essential,” but that Christian people and their churches don’t necessarily go together. When I first moved to England from America a few years ago, I was gobsmacked to read a story in the Guardian on the declining relevance of the Church of England under the headline, “England’s churches can survive, but the religion will have to go.” It should be cold comfort to you that today, the Guardian is cheering your actions the loudest, whilst the editors of the Telegraph recently offered their opinion under the headline, “When Britain Needed Them Most, Why Did the Churches Lock their Doors?” Yet this is hardly the Church’s gravest error.

Last week the papers reported [1]that you have now forbidden the clergy to minister at the bedside of the sick and dying—the very task that was the central focus of Christ’s ministry and the chief ministry of priests in the 2,000 years since. My own vicar confirmed that she had received this instruction and, to my great sadness, that she agreed with it. Let’s be frank: the Pope of Rome is encouraging the faithful to “pray . . . for our priests, that they may have the courage to go out and go to the sick people, bringing the strength of God’s word and the eucharist, and accompany the health workers and volunteers in this work that they are doing,” whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury is telling priests to run for their lives. Could the contrast be any more stark? Could the scripture, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and for the gospel will save it,” be any more clear?

So surprised was I by news of your directive that priests should absent themselves from the sick and dying that I contacted two Catholic priests in London to enquire whether this is an order the government has foisted upon all clergy over their objection. It is not. They informed me that Catholic priests equipped with personal protective clothing are continuing to give last rites and minister at the bedsides of COVID-19 patients within hospitals. One called me from his car just as he was pulling up to minister at the home of someone dying of the disease.

The perverse justification for this policy given by the Church of England is that by refusing to bring to the sick and dying the comfort of a priest’s physical presence and the power of the Eucharist, we are carrying out Christ’s command to “love our neighbour.” I must tell you, there are no words in recent memory that have sent a colder chill down my spine.

Lately I have been meeting with a small group to study the works of C. S. Lewis. He would teach us to recognize the lies of Satan by being attuned to the fact that what Satan asks us to accept as “true” is often not just a lie but the polar opposite of truth. Thus was Eve told that by eating of the forbidden tree, not only would she not die, she would become “like God.” In the same fashion are we deluded if we believe that by abandoning the sick and dying to lonely suffering we are carrying out a great mercy instead of a great abomination. I imagine Satan congratulating himself over this strategy to subvert the Church by denying the Eucharist and the presence of priests to the sick and dying under the guise of “loving your neighbour” and alternately kicking himself that he didn’t think of it sooner.

I am well familiar with the argument that all these measures are necessary to keep from spreading the infection and overwhelming our hospitals. However, to suggest that it is essential for doctors and nurses to risk their own lives (and risk carrying the infection to others outside the hospital) by being physically present to comfort the sick and dying, but that it is non-essential for priests to do so, is to perpetuate the atheistic idea that there is nothing beyond the material world and nothing more important than our material survival. Astonishingly, the Church of England has now become a chief sponsor of that deadly message.

Since the start of this crisis, we have been subjected to the mantra that we must at all costs “protect the NHS”—a phrase now recited so often and so robotically as to have become eerily reminiscent of the slogans of totalitarian regimes. We can scarcely get through an online worship service that does not include several reminders that “protecting the NHS” is the overarching goal of all that we do. In your YouTube video response to the recent uproar over church closures you suggested once again that protecting the NHS must be our primary aim.

But of course it is not our primary aim. Not since Alec Guinness tried to defuse the bomb in The Bridge on the River Kwai has an Englishman so thoroughly confused his ultimate mission with the task at hand. Your overarching duty and ours in this crisis (as at every other time) is not to “protect the NHS” but to defend the faith. As a gauge of how well the faith is faring in the midst of our constant deification of the NHS, you might reflect on the fact that when the Prime Minister was recently released from the hospital, he gave a five-minute speech profusely thanking the NHS without ever mentioning God or thanking the British public for their prayers for his recovery.

I took pains before writing this letter to express my views to the clergy at St. Luke’s, then to consider their responses [2], and also to listen to your remarks online and in the press. I find myself greatly unpersuaded of the justness of your cause. I have come to the sad conclusion that the Church of England and I should part ways. By copy of this letter, I am asking the Rev. Elizabeth Newman, Vicar of St. Luke’s Church, to remove my name from the electoral roll.

I do not suggest that my view alone is valid or that others cannot live out a full and meaningful faith in the Church of England. But speaking for myself, I cannot celebrate God’s gift of life among those who would build altars to the fear of death.

Yours sincerely,

Michael C. Hurley

cc:

Rev. Elizabeth Newman
St. Luke’s Church
The Village, Charlton
London SE7 8UG

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[1] “Coronavirus: Bishop Bans Clergy from Bedsides of the Sick and Dying,” by Patrick Kidd, April 9, 2020, the Times: “Members of the Church of England clergy who have volunteered their services as hospital chaplains during the crisis have been told that they will not be allowed to minister to any sick or dying patients at the bedside, even when wearing protective equipment, because of the risk of spreading the infection.” Full article here.

See, also: “Clergy Must be Free to Minister to the Sick in this Crisis,” a comment written by the Rev. Marcus Walker, Rector of Great St. Bartholomew’s Church (Church of England) in London, in protest of this policy, published on April 9, 2020 in the Times: “Almost 900 years ago my predecessor Rahere, sometime courtier (and maybe jester) in the court of Henry I, founded two institutions which have survived to this day: the church of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Through Black Death, plague, and cholera they have stood together and served the people of London. But not today. Because today the Church of England has forbidden its parish clergy from assisting — beyond the most basic functional tasks — the hospital chaplains in their job. This is no abstract problem. Barts Health NHS Trust, which runs the eponymous St Bartholomew’s Hospital along with three other east London hospitals, has been put in charge of the new 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital. To serve these five hospitals, all of which are dealing with Covid-19 patients, the trust has two Anglican chaplains able to serve at this time. Two. They estimate that they need 11 to cover this crisis. Last week they put out a plea to the clergy living in London to come and support them in their essential ministry. But can they use us? No. The Church of England has suddenly changed its policy: priests volunteering as chaplains ‘will not themselves minister to sick or dying patients at close hand’. This is not the opinion of other religions and denominations, who have found ways of safely recruiting and dispatching people to minister to their own faithful — and quite rightly. It is only the Established Church which has decided not to allow the upscaling of its presence. The two chaplains, divided (by some miracle) over five different locations, and working all hours of day and night, will have to engage in this desperately important but hugely challenging ministry by themselves. When we are ordained, every single priest is told by the bishop ordaining them that ‘Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent . . . They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death’. Today we are banned from doing this, not by a hostile government or a suspicious health service but by our own Church. I beg the bishops to reverse this decision before we forfeit for ever the right to call ourselves again the national church.”

[2] I received several email responses from Liz Newman and other clergy at St. Luke’s, expressing complete approval of the orders of the archbishop with a view to the utmost importance of modeling for the public the church’s support for and solidarity with the government–words I somehow cannot imagine ever coming from the mouth of our Lord. She pointed out that permanent hospital chaplains associated with the Church of England continue to do their work even as volunteer chaplains are banned. However, as noted in the Rev. Marcus Walker’s comment in the Times, which is fully excerpted above and which I commended to Rev. Newman’s reading, the few permanent hospital chaplains cannot possibly do the job at hand in the midst of this pandemic, which is why the NHS has called for volunteer chaplains and pledged to give them training and protective equipment. It is this call that, as Fr. Walker points out, the Church of England has flatly and uniquely refused under the guise that to do so is to “love one’s neighbour.” For the reasons made clear in my letter to the archbishop, I shudder at this subterfuge. Finally, Rev. Newman pointed out with palpable indignation the many good and charitable works being done under great duress by her and other members of the St. Luke’s clergy, which points are neither in dispute, nor the subject of my remarks, nor in any way pertinent to them.