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Sheila Hancock: It was foolish to close churches during lockdown

by Marcus Jones

Star of stage and screen Sheila Hancock has suggested the government did more harm than good by forcing places of worship to close down during the two national lockdowns.

The 87-year-old actress, who's been awarded an OBE and a CBE for services to drama, has been speaking to Premier about her own place of worship which moved into a new building this year but hasn't been allowed to fully operate because of the restrictions.

Hancock is a member of the Hammersmith Quakers, who were forced to move out of their old building due to redevelopment, but have now opened up a brand new centre which is arguably the greenest place of worship in the country.

"It's, environmentally, an example to everybody," the award winning actress says. "It's got every kind of good thing that you could possibly have. It is a remarkable piece of work and it's exquisitely beautiful."

The group aim to act as a low carbon community with the structure requiring little energy for space, heating and cooling.

Natural materials, colours and light have been used in the design to reflect the core values and ethical concerns of the Quakers.

As well as providing a space for weekly worship, the centre will also provide space for its outreach to the community which includes support for the homeless. There are also rooms to rent for meetings and even theatre groups.

But the grand plans to open the building in style has been hampered due to the pandemic.

While the group did manage to meet for worship in-between lockdowns - for the most part they've not been able to take advantage of the space they've created.

"It has been disappointing," Hancock says. "But the good thing about Quakers is we can actually have a meeting for worship anywhere because all we do is sit in silence and if somebody feels moved to speak then they can and then we go silent while we think about it. Zoom has been a godsend. 

"It did seem awfully stupid for a group of people to sit there in silence on Zoom but we did it and it was rather wonderful."

Hancock admits to being confused by all the rules which have been introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus.

She also says she can't understand the reasoning for shutting places of worship.

"I think it was foolish of them. It's rather like gym is the safest place I know. They've got Perspex screens, you have to wipe down the machines, they've got air coming in, all the windows are open. It's so safe and I think most churches could follow those measures. 

"We certainly did when we had the opportunity to meet. We were safer there than in our own homes, with children coming in and out.

"For all of the religions I think it could have only been good for the morale of the country. I seriously do believe that."

Faith was something instilled in the actress from a very early age. She attended a Catholic school and used to enjoy visiting different churches with her father where they would score the church based on things like the sermon and singing. Hancock says the practice of churchgoing became indoctrinated in her and she continued it as she began her work in theatre.

She was later persuaded to become a humanist and gave up on faith following the deaths of two loved ones and then struggling with the idea that a good God would allow suffering. It was only when she was diagnosed with cancer that she found herself looking for some spiritual element in her life.

Dalliances with Hinduism and the Church of England were brief before she settled with the Quakers after being invited on a retreat by a friend.

Next year she'll mark 25 years as a Quaker.

"I've never regretted it," she says. "It's absolutely right for me. I like the silence because it expresses an inability to find the answer and I think life is one long quest to find the answer, which you probably never will. I don't want people to give me their vision for the answer and I believe profoundly that there is that of God in everyone and then that ties me over."

As places of worship are given the green light to reopen this weekend, Hancock is looking forward to getting back into the building, not just for personal reasons, but for the good she's hoping her group can bring to the local community.

"It will be wonderful for us all to get together. We want to warm the building up. A new building needs people, the world needs people. We've got to look at the environment, we've got so many things that we got to do. And that can be a centre where we get the strength to do them, and stand up and be counted."


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