Open Churches, Closed Museums

During the first lockdown in Spring 2020, places of worship were treated, in many ways, the same as museums and art galleries. They were asked to physically close their buildings. When the new Tier system was announced in October, Tier 3 included the closure of our public museums and, while not explicitly asking places of worship to close, the rules restricted any congregational worship. Yet as the Christmas-crumbling December announcements of Tier 3 and 4 to many parts of the country were made, the museums all closed once again, while places of worship were now not only to remain open, but to also able to continue holding congregational prayer in a ‘covid-19 safe’ way. It is in fact one of the only indoor civic spaces that have exceptions to what people in Tier 3 or 4 regions can leave their house to visit and congregate in. As the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested in September [1], ‘Worship is the work of God — not a social gathering’.

Alongside the factor of divine intervention, what has been the motivation that has engineered this policy change from the UK government? What have been the factors contributing to the striking differing restrictions now in place between places of worship and our public museums, art galleries and cultural institutions? During the first announced national lockdown in March, I made a broad observation[2] that many large, institutionalized museums simply locked up shop, put staff on furlough and limited activity while places of worship, despite the physical buildings being shut, continued to be delivered. Their activity did not slow to a halt, in fact it broadly increased. ‘Museums’ have historically and even recently been called ‘temples’ but in this situation where we measure essential service to society, it was the real temples that adapted quick, whilst the secular temples broadly slowed down, put on hold, or limited to roll outs of online resources.

The discussions that have emerged among policy-makers and leadership in the arts and cultural sector have largely been characterized by a tone of survival. This survival has been discussed and debated around the economic case — on the complete fracture of economic stability the pandemic has caused in the sector. It has been led by calls emphasizing the contribution that the arts and cultural sector makes to the UK economy [3] — with these leadership voices lobbying the government for more financial support — like many sectors financially decimated by the pandemic. It emphasizes the fragility of the tight economic model of many of our largest institutions, who started moving away from strong civil service models to paper thin, max output-minimum investment economic models begun in the 1980s. Less public money, more self-generated income and private patronage; fewer stable contracts and more zero-hour or outsourced contracts; a model that relies heavily on the blockbuster exhibition and maximizing the spending capital of visitors in the gallery; a model that was already raising issues of sustainability [4].

The anxieties of survival are highlighted as the major leadership concerns in one of the few early reports on the adjustment of the cultural sector by the ArtFund_[5]. One of the highest ranked concern is the return of audiences: of ticket sales, café sales, retail and membership. The knock-on impact is cited as the need to tighten purse strings with redundancies taking place after the first lockdown and no doubt more to be attempted in 2021. The economic survival of Britain’s major cultural institutions let alone the wider sector have been the talking points during the pandemic, both internally and in policy and politics.

It is particularly interesting that the essential role of our arts and cultural institutions, our museums and galleries have not been brought to the forefront. Was there ever a case for museums and galleries to remain ‘safely’ open during Tier 3 and 4 just as places of worship have been given? It may be unfair to expect a greater discursive emphasis on the importance of our museums and cultural spaces. Ultimately the closures and lockdown measures are for the good of public health and it is a necessary to follow government restrictions, but the museum itself has been confident in calling itself essential in recent decades, the ultimate civic space — the ‘secular temple’[6] for all. In the latest pre-Covid-19 Arts Council Strategy 2020–2030[7], museums were particularly emphasized as ‘essential’ in shaping culture, sharing knowledge and sustaining community. The Museum Association report, ‘Museums Change Lives’ [8] talks about the importance of the space being an ‘essential part of the fabric of society’. Yet, the pandemic has batted away these essential claims, put the economic fragility at the centre and have left many museums and galleries unsure of what their role is during this pandemic besides survival. On the other hand, from food banks to vital hubs of wellbeing, faith communities and organizations have been active spaces with a clear purpose during the pandemic. The recent report [9] commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society noted that faith groups were contributing immensely and further developing partnerships with local authorities or wider civic entities in bringing pastoral and service-led support to many. This functional aspect is a clear reason why places of worship have not been asked to close in the more recent restrictions. Faith leaders and communities have proven their work essential.

It speaks to the way in which religion is still a central pillar within British society, whether it is social welfare, ritual, devotional, doctrinal or even in the everyday echoes of belief found in society and institutions. The most emphatic voices on the importance of places of worship have perhaps inevitably come from the Church of England with the Archbishop of Canterbury at times tweeting the latest guidelines for places of worship as first release of information [10] . Additionally, MPs in parliament have shared many references to either acknowledge the role of religion and faith or even question the restrictions applying to places of worship. A significant contribution made by the Conservative MP and former Prime Minister, Theresa May, lamented the previous restrictions on worship[11]. While many faith communities have aimed to make the case for the vital service they provide[12], it might be argued that this has simply added to the dialogue rather than coming from spaces of decision-making capital. It evokes two broader ideas: the first is of the ‘Christian socialization’ [13] that is baked into British society and its institutions. The second, a flip side of this, is that as Tariq Madood [14] notes, the Church of England through its consistent presence has in many ways been a vanguard for all faiths in the country. If Churches are to remain open, then mosques, synagogues, temples, and all places of worship must remain open too.

Perhaps this differential treatment of the ‘real’ temples with the self-proclaimed ‘temples of the secular’ points to the huge detachment of the two. Our public museums and galleries have integrated a culture where the presumption of secularity or even concepts of secularity have become as natural in its ecosystem as the white walls, canonised art or categorised artefact that they hold. The lack of critical enquiry into secularity and of considered engagement with religion and belief as existing, living concepts has, perhaps, caused this grand illusion of the museum or the gallery being the essential, unique, and contributing space to society — worthy enough to hold a descriptor of a ‘temple’. Yet, this myth of secularity that exists in the museums walls is nowhere near reality in society, politics, and even the epistemologies the museum is built on. It sits on a Christianised histography as much as a ‘secular civilizing’ histography. If the sector began to develop a more significant religious literacy, it maybe could have had more purpose, or synergized and synchronized support from networks by connecting, collaborating and delivering essential ‘Godly’ work in this pandemic rather than being solely in a situation where it hopes to ride it out and survive before serving society again.

[1] ‘Archbishop of Canterbury on Twitter: “After Contact with Government We Hear That There Is No Change to Guidance on Places of Worship. Worship Is the Work of God — Not a Social Gathering — and Gives the Strength to Love and Serve.”’, Twitter, 2020 <> [accessed 28 December 2020].

[2] Hassan Vawda, ‘Museums Must Go Further If They Want to Be Seen as “Temples of the Secular” ’, Museums Journal, 2020 <> [accessed 28 December 2020].

[3] House of Commons, Arts and Culture Industries: Economic Contribution and Covid-19, 2020.

[4] National Museums Directors Council, Museums Matter, Museums Matter, 2015 <>.

[5] Art Fund_, COVID-19 Impact: Museum Sector Research Findings, 2020.

[6] What Would Joan Littlewood Say?, ed. by Lyn Gardner (Coulouste Gulbenkien Foundation (UK Branch), 2019).

[7] Arts Council England, Strategy 2020–2030: Let’s Create, 2020.

[8] Museums Association, Museums Change Lives, 2017.

[9] , ‘Keeping the Faith Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’ (2020)

[10] Catholic Herald, ‘New Social Gathering Restrictions “Will Not Apply to Churches”’, 2020 <> [accessed 3 January 2021].

[11] Ed Thornton, ‘Theresa May Speaks out against Ban on Public Worship’, Church Times, 2020 <> [accessed 25 December 2020].

[12] BBC, ‘Covid-19: Religious Groups in England Criticise Lockdown Worship Ban — BBC News’, 2020 <> [accessed 3 January 2021].

[13] Adam Dinham, Alp Arat, and Martha Shaw, Religion and Belief Literacy: Reconnecting a Chain of Learning (Bristol: Policy Press, 2020).

[14] Tariq Modood, ‘Civic Recognition and Respect for Religion in Britain’s Moderate Secularism’, in Islam, Society and the State: British Secularism and Religion, ed. by Yahya Birt, Dilwar Hussain, and Ataullah Siddiqui (Markfield: Kube Publishing Ltd, 2011), pp. 55–76.