Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.
Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.
Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.
]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.
No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.
All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.
Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.
But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.
For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.
For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.
That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?
That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.
This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.
Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?
For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.
Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.
Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.