Churches close worldwide as pandemic spreads

Anglicans urged to remain active in helping each other and the wider community, worship services being livestreamed

The Diocese of Melbourne is permitting churches with worship gatherings of up to 100 people to open on Sundays, in keeping with Australian Government guidelines, but many churches have chosen to close voluntarily and all may be shut if restrictions tighten.

By Stephen Cauchi

March 20 2020The coronavirus global pandemic has forced the widespread closure of churches throughout the world, including Anglican churches in Melbourne, Australia and throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion.

But churches have urged their members to remain active, helping each other and the community amid the growing threat from the COVID-19 virus. Worship services are also being livestreamed over the internet where possible.

A page on Melbourne's diocesan website has been established with regularly updated information. See

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, are among the Anglican leaders who have suspended all public worship and gatherings in churches within their jurisdictions.

In keeping with Australian Government guidelines permitting indoor meetings of up to 100 people, the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne is permitting churches with worship gatherings up to that size to open on Sundays.

However, many Anglican churches within the Diocese have elected to close voluntarily, although some are livestreaming services. As restrictions on indoor gatherings tighten, all churches within the Diocese may soon be forced to close.

St Paul’s Cathedral remains open to visitors and worship, with four services on Sundays, and is planning services for Easter. The St Paul’s website states that the Cathedral will remain open “as long as possible”, although a number of programs and events have been cancelled.

Most of the staff at the Cathedral’s Diocesan offices are now working from home, while many of the state’s Anglican schools have now moved to online classes.

The disruption is expected to last for months, and possibly until the end of the year, as the COVID-19 coronavirus peaks in Australia, Europe and North America.

In his second Ad Clerum for March, Archbishop Philip Freier urged a number of measures for churches to combat the deadly virus.

These included the use of hand sanitiser during worship, banning handshakes during the passing of the peace, the use of individual communion cups rather than a chalice, and a ban on passing collection plates around the congregation.

Archbishop Freier said those serving morning tea should have clean hands and avoid serving food, such as cakes or biscuits, on a common plate used by multiple people.

He also urged regular cleaning of commonly touched surfaces, such as door handles and light switches, and to be wary of other handled items such as money, church bulletins and prayer and hymn books.

Clergy should “plan ahead with strong and compassionate leadership,” he said. “We would encourage all clergy and parish councils to make some contingency plans now for future ministry.

“A crisis like this is hopefully where Christian generosity and compassion can be seen at its best,” Archbishop Freier said.

“What increased pastoral care can you offer the vulnerable in your parish, especially? Are there people who will need help buying food and medicines? Can you have a system of daily pastoral phone calls? Are there vulnerable people in your neighbourhood, not church members necessarily, who might also be helped by offers of pastoral care?

“Consider contacting the frail and elderly in your parish about how best to care for them … can more home visits and home communions be put in place for them, maintaining clean hands and communion vessels and so on?”

Archbishop Freier also urged more electronic giving as income will likely “plummet” if congregations cannot meet.

If worship is prohibited, “there may be possible ways for smaller groups to meet,” he said. “Is it worth preparing leaders and materials for such groups?”

Any church considering live-streaming services over the internet should “let your bishop know,” he said. “The bishops are considering offering such live-streamed ministry if churches are forcibly closed.”

A parish with a diagnosed case of coronavirus among its members should “consider closure of the facility to allow deep cleaning”, he said.

In Sydney, Archbishop Davies has called a halt to all public church gatherings.

“In light of the Prime Minister’s announcement this morning, banning enclosed gatherings in excess of 100 people, I have decided that the Anglican Church in Sydney should suspend all public church gatherings until further notice,” the Archbishop said in a public statement.

“We are encouraging all our churches to consider providing their services online or by other communication methods.

“We shall make every effort to care for our church communities and the wider public, especially those who are isolated and vulnerable.”

Dr Davies also released a video message about the difficult days ahead because of coronavirus but said Christians should respond in trust and humility.

In Britain, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, have cancelled all public worship in the Church of England.

In a joint letter, the Archbishops said it was necessary to put public services on hold “until further notice”.

“Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold. But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop. Far from it,” they wrote.

“Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead. Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day.”

They urged clergy to keep the church buildings open for private prayer and to livestream if churches had the resources to do so.

The Archbishops warned of tough times ahead. “Many people are going to suffer during these coming months as the coronavirus reaches its peak. Tragically, there will be deaths and so many will be grieving and fearful.

“We, the Church of Jesus Christ, with our sisters and brothers from other Christian churches, must be in the forefront of providing practical care and support for the most poor and the most vulnerable.”

They urged Anglicans to “carry on supporting the local foodbank and buy extra provisions for it” and to “ensure the night shelters wherever possible are kept open”.

In Victoria, the Roman Catholic Church has also halted all worship and gatherings.

A letter signed by Archbishop Peter Comensoli and Victoria's three other diocesan bishops stated that “given the seriousness of COVID-19, we support this measure as being responsible and sensible”.

According to the letter, there will be “immediate suspension of public liturgies, celebrations of the Mass, until further notice.

“All other gatherings are suspended. We are very aware that this restriction will be particularly difficult for families who are planning liturgies such as funerals, weddings and baptisms.”

The Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT has banned all worship and gatherings, although this is not yet the case in Victoria.

The President of the National Council of Churches in Australia, Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins, has called on all Christians in Australia to offer prayer every evening at 7pm and to make a particular focus of Prayer for the Nations on Sunday 29 March.

The prayer Bishop Huggins has suggested begins with: “Gracious God, we give thanks anew for your providence and presence. We prayerfully seek your grace, amidst COVID-19 here and overseas. We pray for those in need of healing. We pray for your peace with those who are anxious or grieving.”