Having observed Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday (or possibly not), from Wednesday 2 March to Thursday 14 April 2022, Christian churches enter the penitential season of Lent for the third time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Potentially, the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day presents particular COVID-related issues on account of the numerous occasions on which there is a significant potential for the transmission of the virus through contact between those present at services – from foot washing, imposition of ashes, use of holy water, to the distribution of palms and the veneration of the Cross.
However, as a consequence of the development of the pandemic and the UK’s vaccination programme, the situation during Lent this year is quite different from that in earlier years*, and in the absence of most regulatory controls, faith groups have adopted different approaches to minimize the transmission of COVID-19.
In 2020, the first lockdown regulations did not come into effect until 26 March – the fourth week in Lent – prior to the peak in infections in England at about 7 April‡. However, some contingency measures had been issued by the Diocese of London early in February. and outline guidance was issued by the Church of England for Holy Week and Easter. Nevertheless, churches in England were closed over this period and Passover sederim and iftars during Ramadan could only be celebrated by groups living in the same household. Within the Church of England, further restrictions on the use of churches were imposed by the Church itself; subsequently, clergy were asked to believe that it was “guidance – not an instruction or law”, although this was not evident from the mandatory language used in the Archbishops’ Ad Clerum or in the approach taken by the Diocese of Rochester.
In 2021, Ash Wednesday was early, falling on 17 February, and although infection rates were high, they were on a significant downward trajectory from their peak in early January. The Church of England published COVID-19 Lent Holy Week Easter, v1 on 20 January, which provided guidance on nineteen aspects of Lent, from sprinkling of ashes to the singing of the Exsultet during the Easter Vigil. This supplemented the guidance for Using Church Buildings for Public Worship and Individual Prayer and Advice on the Conduct of Public Worship, here. This reflected the government Guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on 11 January 2021 COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship, commented:
“Under the national lockdown, places of worship remain open for communal worship. This is now one of the very few legal exemptions that allow larger numbers of people to gather. It is therefore crucial that places of worship and those attending comply with both law and the COVID-19 Secure guidance.
Where possible, when visiting a place of worship you should stay local and avoid travelling outside your local area, meaning your village or town, or part of a city”.
Guidance was also issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales: Vade Mecum for Holy Week 2021, (28 February 2021); this referred to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: Celebration of Holy Week 2021, Note to Bishops and Episcopal Conferences on the Celebration of Holy Week 2021, (Prot. N. 96/21.), (19 February 2021).
On 21 February, the Prime Minister announced the ending of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England, and our post Lifting COVID-19 restrictions in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland: update summarized the restrictions in the four countries of the UK. In her response, on behalf of the Church of England, the Bishop of London indicated that although the legal restrictions are being lifted, “there may be good reason for us to take some measures as individuals and as local churches”. The CofE web page, updated on 24 February “will remain as a point of reference for the time being, and [the Church is] in the process of updating documentation including [its] advice on church buildings, risk assessment and cleaning church buildings to reflect the current situation”. COVID-19 Opening and managing church buildings, v 2.4 (25 January 2022).
Similarly, advice from the Roman Catholic Church and other organizations such as the RSCM and CCCBR is as yet unchanged from January 2022, although there are differences in emphasis. The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales advice indicates that Holy water stoups may be refilled (provided the water is changed at least once a week), the Sign of Peace may be offered again (if felt appropriate) and for the time being, Holy Communion must continue to be given under one kind only (the Sacred Host) and for concelebrations of clergy, intinction of the Precious Blood with the Sacred Host should continue to be used.
The advice also states “Where there is physical touch as part of another Rite of the Church (for example, anointing of the sick, ashing of foreheads etc) the use of cotton buds is no longer mandated, but the hands should be cleaned well before and after the Rite”.
The Welsh Government intends to make an announcement about its future policy on COVID-19 on 4 March, but in relation to Ash Wednesday, on 23 February 2022 The Bench of Bishops approved the guidance on the imposition of ashes (ashing) under Alert Level Zero. This states [emphasis in original]:
“Ashing can be undertaken but must be considered as part of your Covid Risk Assessment. Businesses, employers and other organisations, including activity and event organisers have a legal duty to undertake a coronavirus risk assessment of their premises and activities and take reasonable measures to minimise exposure to, and the spread of, coronavirus based on that risk assessment.”
Although the document does not refer to the sprinkling of ashes, it notes that the imposition of ashes “has some Covid-19 (or other virus) transmission risks” and suggests some “reasonable mitigation measures”.
- Lent 2020 began on Wednesday, 26 February and ended on Thursday, 9 April;
- Lent 2021 began on Wednesday, 17 February and ended on Thursday, 1 April;
- Lent 2022 commences Wednesday, 2 March and ends on Thursday, 14 April.
‡ Sarah Scobie, ‘What has been the impact of Covid-19 across the UK countries?’(Nuffield Trust, 15 October 2021).