The Church of England and Covid19

I have been much exercised in recent days over the latest Church of England guidelines for living with Covid19, and in particular the wearing of masks by congregation and ministers, even during services of Holy Communion. My basic irritation lies in the fact that this goes beyond government guidelines for a range of venues that are comparable to churches – restaurants, bars, museum etc.. On the positive side it has been the source of some amusement in our household when considering how the new mask wearing advice matches with the requirements to sanitize or wash hands before and after removing masks, and the prescriptive way of removing masks without touching them or the face. In the context of receiving Holy Communion this probably required 3 or 4 hands per person. As far as I am aware most Anglicans have two at the most. Personally I am disappointed that no reference is made to removing with dignity a face mask elastic from an ear already occupied by glasses and a hearing aid.

But there are other, deeper issues. The first of these concerns the appreciation of risk. In my current context, in Lichfield in Staffordshire, the number of Covid19 positive cases in the last week given by Middle Super Output Area (MSOA) in England  is less than 3, and as 2 by Coronavirus (Covid-19) in the UK. If we take a figure of 5 to allow for asymptomatic cases, and given a population of 100,000 for Lichfield district, this gives a probability of any one person having the virus of 5 x 10-5. Now let us suppose that the chance of meeting any one person in Lichfield on any one day during normal activities is (say) 1 in a 100 (which is probably a bit on the high side), this gives the probability of meeting someone with the virus of 5 x 10-7. Now suppose that one of those 5 infected folk attend a church service, if any one congregation member spends at least 15 minutes in the presence of each of the others, even without social distancing the risk of being infected is thus around 5 x 10-5. With 2m social distancing and recommended sanitization / washing hands etc. this figure falls by a factor of 100 to 5 x 10-7 again. To give this some context, around 100 people are killed or seriously injured in the UK on any one day. Given a population of 70 million, this gives a daily probability of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident of 1.4 x 10-6. Now whilst these approximations are very crude, it seems that, in the current context in Lichfield, including church services, the probability of catching Covid19 on any one day is probably no worse than the probability of being killed or seriously injured in a road accident.

Now I am not arguing for any relaxation of current procedures imposed by the government. These have necessarily to be rather broad brush and simple to understand. Also, whilst many areas of the country are in a similar position to Lichfield, there are places with much higher rates of infection, so the current procedures are in my view sensible and should be followed. But for the church to go beyond these procedures seems wholly unnecessary. To be consistent in terms of an appreciation of the risk, the church should be advising all its members to give up driving completely. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Within the risk analysis community there is a basic assumption in the UK that we should aim at risks that are ALARP – as low as reasonably possible, where “reasonably” is understood to be such that the basic function of the procedure that is being analysed can be achieved. In some large organisations (and I am thinking here specifically of Network Rail with whom I have had numerous arguments) the approach by individuals within the organization to setting risk levels is better described as CMOA (Covering my own ___). I will let the reader complete the phrase. I fear I see the same approach in those involved in setting the Church of England guidelines, with no indication that the true nature of the risk in many parts of the country is appreciated. In the recent communications, the recommendations have gone beyond “reasonable” and threaten to undermine the purpose and integrity of the activity – in this case the giving and receiving of Holy Communion.

This brings me to some further considerations on the nature of the Communion service itself. Before making these arguments, it must be emphasized that I am no theologian, as I guess is only too apparent from what I have written already. So when I enter into discussions of eucharistic theology, it is very much as a non-expert.

As things stand, only the presiding minister takes both bread and wine, with the laity restricted to the bread. The rationale for this is that sharing a cup of wine might be a source of infection risk, which I can appreciate, although I do not find at all satisfactory that laity should be denied the cup. A way around this would be to put the wine into individual cups, as do many other churches. The Church of England has set its face against this, on the basis that sharing should be of “one bread and one cup”. This has been severely criticized by, for example, Andrew Goddard. The only comment I would make, based on some perceptive observations by my wife, is that, in Anglican circles we most certainly do not have “one bread” in a physical sense – with the people’s wafers coming from one production batch and the priest’s wafers from another (and any gluten free wafers from a third). I would contend that the oneness of the bread and cup comes from their consecration within a eucharistic community, rather than in any physical sense. Communion in both kinds could be offered, with no additional risk, by the simple use of individual cups, if such an approach were to be taken.

The same reasoning can be applied to what might be termed ”virtual communion”, the practice of allowing the consecration of bread and wine in people’s homes via a priest’s consecration over an internet platform. Again, the Church or England has set its face against this, based on a rather narrow concept of what is required for consecration – the physical proximity of a priest. There is a danger here of at least underestimating the role of an omnipresent God rather than the priest in the consecration. Whilst I would be reluctant to engage in such practices for a completely random audience, it seems for me that if a congregation who have formed the bonds of fellowship between them over the years, come together virtually around their tablets and laptops, then the consecration of the bread and wine would take place within the body of Christ, the gathered Eucharistic community. I can see no objection to this. But then, I am not a theologian. All I can say is that it would certainly eliminate the risk of Covid19 infection.

Global warming and the church – the way ahead?

The scriptural imperative

In recent sermons and workshops in my local church, St Michael’s Lichfield, I suggested that there was a strong theological / scriptural imperative for taking action to counter the effects of global warming. These can be described under three headings.

  • Care for creation – the message throughout scripture that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and that men and women have been given “dominion” over that creation.  Dominion in this context speaks of the rule of God, and humanity, created in the image of God, needs to exercise a dominion that mirrors that of God. Some would prefer to use the word stewardship for this.  However the nature of dominion is expressed, the divine harmony of creation has been marred by the actions of humanity, and it is thus the responsibility on God’s people to take action to restore the created order.
  • Creation and new creation – the overarching story arc of scripture that God’s creation has been marred by sin, that Jesus’ death and resurrection were to redeem both humanity and the wider creation through the establishment of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”; and culminates in the picture of the new creation, where heaven and earth come together. This is well set out in the writings of Tom Wright of course, and again leads to the conclusion that, as members of God’s kingdom, Christians have both a hope for the future, a responsibility to work for the restoration of his creation. 
  • Neighbour love – the words of the two great commandments set the basis of the Christian ethic – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan carries the clear implication that the word neighbour carries a universal meaning, and applies to those “who are near and those who are far off”. To love one’s neighbour in the context of Global Warming is to take action to protect the particularly vulnerable communities  – in, for example, the low lying islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans who are at an existential risk from sea level rise. 

The way ahead

Having thus established that action to combat the effects of global warming is scripturally justified and indeed can be considered important in the mission and witness of the church, the next question that arises is ”What can be done about it?”  The importance of this question has been recognized in wider Anglican circles and the last of the five “marks of mission” addresses this issue.

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

 As in any emergency response there are two ways forward, which are not mutually exclusive.

  • Mitigation – taking action to limit the increase in global temperature, mainly through limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases – primarily carbon dioxide.
  • Adaptation – developing ways to help communities that are, or will be affected by global warming to alleviate the issues that they are facing.

Although these ways forward might appear straightforward and simple, they are anything but. The reduction of carbon emissions in one place (such as increased use of IT systems instead of travel) can actually result in an increase in carbon emissions in another (in this case, in the areas that host the power-hungry cloud servers). Similarly very necessary short-term adaptation to flooding or drought can result in the necessity to provide large amounts of power or transport from carbon-based sources.  The issues are complex with many interacting social and infrastructure systems, and the decisions that need to be made are often pragmatic and, against some measures, not at all optimal. Whilst this basic complexity needs to be understood and to some degree embraced, in what follows we use this simple mitigation / adaptation framework to discuss how the church (and in particular the Church of England) and its members might act in the coming years.


The basic requirement for mitigation is to reduce the carbon emissions. The Church of England Synod documentof February 2020, talks mainly in terms of the power consumption of church buildings. This is a very narrow focus, and neglects the carbon production by its own members in their non-church activities, as well as another major emission source – the transport used in the church’s activities. The original proposal was that, in the terms of the document, the church should be carbon neutral by 2045, but this was brought forward to 2030 by a vote on the floor of Synod, despite the conclusion of the background document that this was not practical. This is both laudable, but also quite frankly ridiculous. There is little point in bowing to the demands of pressure groups in setting targets, as appears to have happened, if there is no plan or method to achieve these targets in a widely dispersed community such as the Church of England. It might give some synod members a warm feeling inside, but unless a firm plan exists, it is of no practical importance, and quite possibly is a distraction.

That rant having been delivered, the thrust of the Synod document is to change all church power systems to electricity, with this electricity being provided by renewable means. This is again laudable, but there are again issues, even leaving aside the huge potential cost to parishes. Firstly, the proportion of UK electricity produced by renewables is of the order of 30% (leaving aside nuclear power, which of course has its own set of environmental issues). Switching to electricity, if renewable power is not available, actually increases carbon production. The use of gas, which is a primary power source, produces 0.185 kg CO2 per kWh of energy, whilst the use of non-renewable electricity (a secondary product from fossil fuels with energy losses due to low process efficiency) produces 0.309 kg CO2 per kWh. Any commitment to renewable energy must thus come with a commitment to supporting new renewable sources, and in particular land and offshore wind farms and solar farms. This may well lead to some conflict with communities affected by such developments. Is the Church prepared to be on the side of the developer in such situations, over and against the wishes of the local community?  In addition the church could adapt its own resources (i.e. its buildings) to conserve energy through better insulation and to become energy producers, through the increased use of solar panels on church roofs, wherever the structure can be made to be strong enough to support these.  This again will raise a host of community and planning issues that need to be faced, and gifts other than the enthusiasm of climate advocates will be required. 

As well as thinking about its own buildings, church members also need to be challenged on their own use of energy and production of carbon in their daily lives, as a part of their discipleship and witness. This will require a year on year teaching and communication strategy for all levels of the church, bringing together a solid scriptural base, reflecting the priorities in the five marks of mission, with practical ways forward for individuals and families.  There are already a number of excellent resources available for this.

As was remarked earlier, there is however an elephant in the room – the carbon emissions from transport. Indeed the February 2020 synod document has only two mention of transport, one of which rather dismisses the effect with a single mention that electric cars will solve the problem; and the other suggest limiting air transport. Emissions from all forms of transport can be very significant – see the graphic below. Figures shown are grams of carbon emitted per passenger kilometre for an average loaded vehicle. Clearly public transport emissions (particularly electric trains) are significantly lower than those for private vehicles. Air transport emissions are very high indeed. Electric cars may be part of the solution, but until there has been a major decarbonisation of electrical supply their use is not without issues. In any case, electric cars are, just like conventional vehicles, major producers of particulate matter that it is becoming increasingly appreciated is responsible for respiratory problems, child development issues and early deaths.  It is generally agreed by at least the younger generation of transport engineers and planners, that the only way forward to achieve carbon neutrality and minimise other environmental effects is through the encouragement of walking and cycling and public transport use, and the restriction of personal transport.

Transport emissions

Thus in the first instance, a practical measure that churches and dioceses could take would to carry out transport audits to calculate the carbon emissions due to church activities – driving to church, diocesan meetings etc. Sample calculations for a variety of types of church suggest that these values will be between 30 and 50% of the overall carbon emissions. for an one church community  Clearly something needs to be done in this regard if emissions targets are really going to be met across all activities. And this will be painful. It may require changes to church activities to times and places where public transport, cycling or walking will be the main means of getting there, both at parish and diocese level.  At the local level, it may require a rethink of where congregations meet, moving away from the centralized large church model to the more local small church model. Indeed it may require a complete restructuring of church structures so that central functions take place in cities well served by public transport rather than in picturesque medieval cities that are difficult to get to by anything but car (yes, Lichfield diocese, I am thinking about you here).  Obviously again church members need to be challenged on their own transport use – particularly in terms of car and plane use – simply as part of their witness and discipleship. It is my experience that to talk in these terms actually challenges people on a very deep level – such is the overall societal dependence on (and indeed one might say addiction to) personal car use.


Hazards, Vulnerability and disasters

When considering adaptations the concepts of hazard, vulnerability and disaster are important (see the graphic above). Natural hazards will always occur, although they will become more frequent as climate change progresses. These however only lead to disasters where they impinge on a vulnerable, non-resilient community. Thus the primary thrust must be to help vulnerable communities be come more resilient.

The church’s “adaptation” response can be considered to have both international and national aspects. With regard to the former, this could involve supporting those overseas agencies that work to help vulnerable communities prepare for extreme events and to help them to recover from such events . These can be both short-term incidents such as cyclones or longer-term incident such as prolonged drought. The various aid agencies are usually quite responsive to need and will make their needs known via the internet as required. A flexible giving response for emergencies by churches and dioceses would be helpful here. 

Nationally, it is generally accepted that the effect of global warming will result in warmer wetter winters, hotter drier summers and more extreme conditions. Depending upon the locality many church buildings are well placed to act as emergency shelters for those displaced by storms, and also perhaps to offer a cool place of refuge to the vulnerable during heat waves. Careful emergency planning is of course required before these events actually occur, and it may be that churches could play a useful role in national and local resilience fora. And of course, the individual caring ministry of church members for each other and those around them will continue to be of importance. 

February 2020 Floods in Ironbridge


One major role that could be played by the Church of England in relation to global warming is that of advocacy. Its very significant political and social influence could be used to argue for both mitigation and adaptation measures. For the former, it could argue for greater provision of renewable supplies, enhanced house insulation, more electric car charging points and the development of public transport routes and services (both electric buses and trains). For the latter, support could be given to overseas aid projects that both help to build resilient societies in vulnerable areas and to respond quickly to emergencies. Within the UK, the relevant authorities should be urged to consider better flood defenses, and funding for the maintenance of the built environment and transport networks to withstand extreme storms.  The church, at all levels from parochial to national, would need to work with a range of other official and voluntary groups as it seeks to influence policies in these ways.

On an individual level, the importance of individual church members taking small actions to reduce carbon emissions and build societal resilience should not be underestimated. Such actions, as well as being a witness to their faith, could also serve as local advocacy, in influencing friends and neighbours to adopt similar measures. Both the institutional church and its members need to take seriously Jesus’ command to be “lights of the world” in this regard.  

Who is my neighbour? Climate Change and Global Impact.

Commentary on workshop slides

Page 1. The intention was that the workshop would look at the large-scale environmental issues – in particular the effects of climate change. This is not to say that the other large-scale issues, such as plastic pollution, aren’t important. I have simply concentrated on something I know a little about. Some of the slides have been used elsewhere – in the sermon I preached in February, and in a School Assembly for Years 5 and 6 at St Michael’s School.

Page 2. This contains an outline of the workshop and an introduction to climate change. Climate change occurs because of a build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that blankets the earth – letting in solar radiation, but impeding the reflected radiation. This results in a general warming of the earth as shown in the bottom left hand figure. The science is now firm. This temperature change is caused by anthropogenic (i.e. human) effects due to industrialization. The graphic on the bottom right doesn’t work in the handout, but I have included it separately below. In my view it illustrates global temperature rise in a particularly graphic way (click the icon on the bottom left if the graphic is not visible).

Global temperature change

Page 3. These slides show the effect of glacier melt and sea level rise, droughts and wildfires caused by elevated temperatures and the specific effects of temperature increase on the UK and Europe. Very broadly, the effects of climate change for the UK are threefold – hotter drier summers, warmer wetter winters and more extreme weather events. The bottom right slide introduces the scriptural background, and in particular the three reasons for taking action on environmental issues that I outlined in my February sermon – the stewardship of God’s creation; the redemption and restoration of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and through us as his disciples, leading to the hope of a new creation; and the principle of neighbour love. What follows concentrates on the latter. 

Page 4. This introduces the story of the Good Samaritan. A teacher asks Jesus a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”,which Jesus then gets him to answer himself with the words of the two great commandments. These are used frequently in BCP communion services, but only irregularly in the more modern services (Yes, this is a whinge). The first of these commandments is part of the Shema, the regular daily prayer of Jewish worship. The Shema also contains the passage from Deuteronomy 11 shown in the bottom left slide, which indicates that love for God will also result in a harmonious relationship with nature, which is interesting in the present context. The injunction to love one’s neighbour, from the book of Leviticus, is not itself part of the Shema, but seems to have been linked with the verse from Deuteronomy. Jesus certainly used it that way in his teaching. In the Old Testament at least, the concept of neighbour probably applied to those with whom you lived, or to your tribal or ethnic grouping. 

Pages 5 and 6. In response to the self-justifying question “Who then is my neighbour?”,Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the next few slides are illustrations of this. In the School Assembly, the children told me the parable with no problem, so I will assume all readers know it well enough. On the map, I show the relative locations of Jerusalem and Jericho, about 20 miles in distance and 1500 feet in elevation apart. This would be a journey of a day or two in high temperatures in a quite barren environment.

Page 7. Here I return to the question “Who then is my neighbour”. The answer given by Jesus in the parable is obvious and memorable. On the map in the top right hand corner I try to make the point that Jerusalem and Jericho are a day or so apart (the red circle), and the distance between Jerusalem and Samaria (the purple circle) somewhat greater. Jesus defines one’s neighbour in more than local or ethnic terms. The modern map shows the distance we can travel in a day or so – which of course encompasses most of the world.  I would suggest that, using this analogy, the definition of neighbour we should use is a global one. 

Page 8.  In the last slide of page 7 and the first two on page 8, I ask the question again “Who then is my neighbour” – those in low lying Pacific and Indian Ocean islands for whom climate change poses an existential threat; those in Australia suffering from drought and wildfire; or those more locally suffering from an increased frequency and intensity of floods? I then go on to ask the question “What can we do” and introduce the concepts of mitigation (by cutting carbon emissions) and adaptation (helping those vulnerable to the changes that are already occurring).

Page 9. Firstly I show some numbers that illustrate carbon emissions for the activities of St Michael’s church in 2018 and compare them with values for typical households in the UK and for various countries around the world. The figures are self-explanatory and certainly provoke thought.  As I type I realise I have included no carbon emission figures for public transport, but in general the climate emissions per passenger mile for bus and train, are much, much lower than for private cars.  I also introduce the idea of climate advocacy – of using the influence we have through politicians and those around us to argue for change. This might be to advocate more renewable energy sources (including land based wind energy which will not be popular!); to encourage public transport use; and to encourage the provision of electric vehicle charging points. Note that the latter are not a complete solution to the issue of carbon emissions with the current electricity supply mix, and electric vehicles still produce environmentally damaging particulate pollution.  The last slide returns to the theme of adaptation and illustrates the ideas of hazard and vulnerability. Natural hazards will always occur, but they only result in disasters when they impinge on vulnerable individuals and communities.

Page 10. The first slide continues with the adaptation theme – and suggests ways in which we can support the vulnerable – through practical support to overseas communities and advocacy for an increase in overseas development aid; and perhaps for communities at home by using church buildings as refuges in emergencies (they can be very pleasantly cool in heat waves for example) or again by advocacy so that flood protection and emergency health provision is taken seriously by government. At this point I was going to suggest we talk to each other about what we could do, both as individuals and as a church. Perhaps we can take this up in discussions to this post? My first suggestion is that we could carry out individual and household carbon audits – there are a number of simple tools for doing this on the web. This would at least give us a basis for further action.  Other suggestions would be very welcome.  Finally I end with the Anglican Communion five marks of mission, drawing attention particularly to the last one “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. Environmental concern is a vital part of the church’s mission. The last slide is another saying from Jesus that we know well (particularly if you come to the BCP communion service…). We are called to let our light shine before others. We must never underestimate the importance of our choices and lifestyles as a witness to others, both in persuading them to consider the effects of their lifestyle on the environment, and in showing the love of Jesus in a practical and real way.