London churches close their doors as capital grapples with UK's worst coronavirus outbreak

Churches across London are closing their doors as coronavirus continues to spread around the capital. Unsplash/Hoyoung Choi

Bishops in London - the UK's coronavirus epicentre - have gone one step further than official Church of England guidance requires and closed their church buildings in addition to suspending public worship.

The Church of England last week advised churches to suspend public worship but said they could keep their buildings open for people who wanted to come in for private prayer.

In their statement, the bishops said that even private prayer was now no longer possible in these "difficult days", as they warned that "more people will die" unless every effort is made to enforce social distancing.

The capital is grappling with the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the UK, with nearly 2,000 confirmed cases and 109 deaths as of Sunday.

The joint call came from the Bishops of London, Southwark, Chelmsford and Rochester, who oversee dioceses which all straddle London boroughs.

It follows impassioned pleas from both Prime Minister Boris John and London Mayor Sadiq Khan for people to avoid all but essential travel after Brits across the country flouted official advice on social distancing and flocked to seasides and beauty spots over the weekend.

Health secretary Matt Hancock also warned that "nothing is off the table" to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Khan told BBC One's the Andrew Marr Show that the capital was "weeks ahead of the rest of the country".

In their joint statement, the bishops said: "Sadly, London is ahead of the rest of the country in seeing a steep rise in the number of those falling sick with COVID-19.

"We have all heard the strong calls from the Mayor and the Prime Minister not to leave home unless it is essential, and not to use public transport unless we have to.

"If our attempts to distance ourselves physically from one another and prevent the spread of infection are not effective, more people will die."

They continued: "In light of this, the time has come, in London, not only for us to suspend public worship, but for us to close our church buildings entirely."

The bishops went on to say that the closure of church buildings was their way of demonstrating "how important physical distancing is in saving lives".

London churches are being advised to place notices on their doors and websites with more information about how people can still participate in church worship and an emergency telephone number.

While the buildings are being closed off to the public, clergy who live adjacent to their churches are still allowed to go in to pray and celebrate the Eucharist.

They can also consider ringing the bell to signal the start of prayers and are being told to "do live stream as much as possible".

The bishops further warned that such measures may soon become nationwide if the outbreak continues to escalate in the UK.

"We are aware that, although we make the decision in London first, it may be required across the country," the bishops said.

They continued: "Our most profound desire is to come together with our neighbours. Christ taught us to come together as His Body to celebrate the sacraments. In all the history of Christendom in these islands, we have not before taken such a step.

"Partly, this is our modern understanding of how disease is communicated, which in the times of former plagues had not developed.

"But it is also born of the teaching of Our Lord that the two great commandments are love of God and love of neighbour. The very love of neighbour that leads us to want to come together requires us to sacrifice congregating for a season.

"Even though our buildings will be closed, the Church continues to be alive and active."