Coronavirus Bill: Bishop of Rochester responds on church closures and care for vulnerable

On 24th March 2020 the House of Lords debated the emergency legislation from the Government to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic. The Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke in the debate, highlighting issues to do with church closures, funerals, and care of the vulnerable, including the homeless, and those in prison or immigration detention:


“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

In many ways we are entering into a strange land, and indeed in some ways a land of exile: a land in which we are exiled from many of our normal patterns of living, in which people of faith are not able to attend their places of worship and in which many people find themselves having to live life in entirely new ways.

This is a small thing, but I am grateful for the inclusion in the other place of Clause 84, which solved a little conundrum about the legality of the General Synod of the Church of England under these circumstances. Rather more importantly, and in relation particularly to what the Prime Minister said last night, we in the faith communities absolutely accept that our places of worship are now closed. Such things as weddings are suspended and postponed until a later time. But though the buildings are closed, I hope the communities and people are not closed. Particularly in relation to our caring and charitable activities, I hope that people of faith, alongside others, will continue to engage.

Reference has already been made to the care of the homeless and the importance of shelters, food banks and those kinds of things. I am grateful for the discussions happening around those. I think I am right in saying that work is under way in London to transfer residents of shelters to budget hotels.

The care of the vulnerable has just been spoken of powerfully by the noble Baroness, and I have other categories in mind, including trafficked people and victims of domestic abuse—of course, the Bill to support such people has now been delayed again—those who are isolated and perhaps especially those who are or sadly will be bereaved in the coming days.

That brings me to Schedule 28 which deals with funerals and is very far-reaching in its effects, potentially, but it is important and I accept the need for it. However, I hope that alongside all this we can maintain our sense of dignity, which is really important, around issues of death, bereavement and the way we treat the dying, the dead and the bereaved. The point has been made about the need for sensitivity to the funerary practices of different faith communities and I know that conversations have been going on with Downing Street about that. We trust that local authorities and others will act in appropriate ways. I think I can speak for all the churches, faith communities and indeed civil celebrants when I say that for as long as we possibly can, we will wish to provide people to officiate at funeral services, even if those services are attended only by the deceased person in their coffin and the officiant—that is part of treating these situations with dignity. I confidently express our commitment on these Benches to do that for as long as we possibly can and to enter into discussions that are needed in order to do it.

On the theme of treating people with dignity, reference has already been made to prisons and other places of detention—immigration removal centres and suchlike. We know that they will be under huge pressure at this time, not least if staff numbers are restricted due to infection. For as long as possible I know that, in prisons and other such places, our multifaith chaplaincy teams will continue to work as they are today. That underlines the importance of giving prisoners, particularly if they are not able to gather for their worship, access to faith provision of some kind at this time, when they are cut off, very often, from other forms of contact.

That brings me to two particular questions in relation to prisons. One is about communication with the outside world now that prison visits have understandably been curtailed. Is there any intention to increase the availability of such things as Skype, whereby families, and perhaps particularly the children of those who are in prison, can maintain relationships and contact with them? The other question concerns those who might be released. There has been some talk about this and I would value an update from the Minister as to the thinking. I am thinking, for example, of low-risk, elderly prisoners, who are in any case difficult to care for in prison and may become more difficult to care for. Another group might be those pregnant women who are currently in prison. Can special provision be made for early release for those groups and, no doubt, others as well?


A few minutes ago, I referred to the Hebrew psalmist. The lesson from that time is that the cry

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

was answered some decades later by the fact that people did actually learn to do it. During that period of exile, they learned to express their worship and their solidarity with one another in new and different ways that set patterns for many centuries to come. I have a quiet confidence, actually, that with all the difficulties and challenges, we will, as a society, learn to sing our songs in new ways. Maybe, as has been indicated, the workings of this House will be one of those songs that we sing in a new way. Above all, we must learn to sing the songs of human dignity and maintain them, and perhaps also those songs that celebrate human ingenuity, compassion and relatedness, which will be incredibly important virtues in these coming days.


Baroness Ludford (LD):…I want briefly to mention one or two other things. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Falconer, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, who raised issues about funerals and religious beliefs as concerns the need for burial and not cremation. As someone who organised my late husband’s funeral just five months ago, and a memorial service four months ago, this is very important to me.


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