While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the start of harsher restrictions in London and southeast England in an attempt to prevent the spread of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus, the archbishop of Canterbury said Christians should go to church on Christmas unless they are from a vulnerable group that is “more at risk” from COVID-19.
Asked if he still thinks churches are the “safest places going” during the pandemic, as he had said last month in reference to attending Christmas services, Archbishop Justin Welby told The Times (of London): “I would say, yes, go to church. Or go online. If you’re vulnerable, if you’re more at risk, then it’s going to have to be online.”
In an interview on BBC's “The Andrew Marr Show,” Welby again stressed that seniors and people with comorbidities should not feel compelled to attend Christmas services.
Welby further advised that for those who do decide to go to church, they should not "mingle" and should avoid getting near the choir.
"Wave happily to people and go home," he said, urging people to call friends and family on the phone to help everyone stave off feelings of loneliness due to the isolation.
On Saturday, the prime minister held an emergency press conference to announce that London and many other parts of England would enter new tier 4 restrictions starting at midnight.
Johnson said some non-essential services, including retail, indoor gyms, leisure facilities, and personal care services, must close. “Unlike the November national restrictions, communal worship can continue to take place in tier 4 areas,” he added.
Churches will be allowed to hold carol services, midnight mass and Christmas Day communion from Dec. 23-27, as long as social distancing guidelines are followed.
The Telegraph reported that on Sunday, the U.K. "recorded the highest number of daily coronavirus cases since the pandemic began," with 35,928 infections. The previous record was set on Dec. 14 when 34,404 infections were recorded. The U.K. has had more than 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 with over 67,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
The BBC also reported on Sunday that many European countries had banned travel from the U.K. due to the spread of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus.
In his interview with the Times, Welby said he had “hugely cut back” his own family’s plans for Christmas and will not host his 91-year-old mother, Lady Williams of Elvel, on Christmas Day. He said she had also decided not to go to church this Christmas due to her risk of contracting the virus.
He said he plans to spend the day with his wife, Caroline, one of their adult daughters, and some other close relatives.
“We will stay very carefully socially distanced and [have] a much shorter time together than we would have had,” he said. “We’re very fortunate — down in Canterbury where we stay is a big enough place that we can keep easily apart. Lots of things we’d normally be doing like board games and card games we won’t be doing because they get you too close.”
In May, Welby and the archbishop of York were criticized for asking clergy to temporarily close churches in response to the pandemic.
Welby’s stand on closing churches during lockdowns changed later on, however.
During the lockdown in England last month, Welby was among the religious leaders who questioned the scientific basis on which the government closed places of worship for communal services.
More than 120 church leaders said last month they were taking legal action against the government for its “unlawful” decision to ban worship services.
The leaders of various denominations demanded a judicial review of the government’s decision, arguing that the “measures involve a direct and serious interference with the independence of religious organizations and freedoms of religious people.”
Last month, Welby also announced that he would be taking a sabbatical and study leave from May to early August of 2021 for “reflection, prayer, and spiritual renewal” since COVID-19 had forced him to delay his plans.