Artillery Row

Meeting others to worship is a lifeline

Criminalising corporate worship is both damaging and dangerous for Scotland, says Rev. Dr William Philip

A group of Clergy taking government to court might seem a surprisingly ‘un-Christian’ thing to do, when closing churches is to ‘save lives’. In fact, the reason we have commenced action against Scottish Minsters is born of profound Christian love for our nation. We all recognise the challenges facing the government. But we believe that, however well-intentioned, criminalising corporate worship is both damaging and dangerous for Scotland.

It is because government has failed to recognise Church as an essential ‘service’ which cannot be shut down without great harm

First, what this is not about. We are not denying the terrible effects of Covid 19. As a former hospital physician, I fully appreciate the effects of this disease, and all the petitioners have acted personally and corporately to mitigate the spread of the virus. Nor is it about ‘our club’ wanting special privileges. Rather, it is because government has failed to recognise Church as an essential ‘service’ which cannot be shut down without great harm, especially at a time of national crisis.

The reason we have commenced action against Scottish Minsters is born of profound Christian love for our nation

We must care for people as whole human beings, and Covid 19 is not the only threat to health and wellbeing. Our congregation of 500 in the heart of Glasgow is diverse in age and background, including some of the most vulnerable in the city. I have witnessed first-hand real suffering through lockdown, not least a huge increase in loneliness, misery and untold damage to mental health. I have witnessed people, through not seeking care in order to ‘save the NHS’, develop life-threatening conditions. Most tragically, I witnessed the death of a former drug addict, many years clean but relapsed through isolation and despair.

Meeting together to worship has been, quite literally, a lifeline. We have proved it can be done safely, any small risk greatly outweighed by multiple benefits, especially for those without alternatives because they lack internet. The worst deprivations from this ban are inflicted on the poorest, the neediest, the most vulnerable – now excluded from the comfort and encouragement in life and death only Christian worship can give.

We have allowed the message of the eternal to be eclipsed entirely by that of the earthly in the national consciousness

Throughout this pandemic, people have been fearful, seeking help, needing hope. But the Church has often been absent, hidden behind bolted doors, its leaders offering only the slogans ‘keep safe!’ and ‘remember to wash your hands!’. At a time when we have been forcefully confronted with the fragility of mortal life, we have allowed the message of the eternal to be eclipsed entirely by that of the earthly in the national consciousness. No wonder even atheist columnists have asked ‘Where is spiritual leadership at a time of crisis?’

There is an urgent need for a message beyond that of health and safety: a message of hope and salvation. This is the calling of the Christian Church – especially in dark and difficult days: to ‘hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering’ (Hebrews 10:23). Jesus Christ is the only hope that dispels all fear, death included.

That is not to say Christians don’t care about present physical threats. Indeed, it is this eternal perspective that liberates to love and serve neighbours truly, and fearlessly. As CS Lewis pointed out ‘those who want heaven most have served earth best’. This is what our society needs to witness, proclaimed boldly by Christian leaders and adorned visibly in the worshipping Church. So it is of great damage to Scotland that corporate worship is now illegal.

It also brings great danger.

Many in the world today brave huge threats to worship as Christ’s Church. We do not remotely claim such persecution; however, our situation is unprecedented in modern times. For centuries Scottish law has embedded the truth that both Church and Civil government are ordained by God and subject to Him, but their roles are distinct and government must not interfere in the Church. It was the Stuart monarchs seeking to undermine this ‘twa kingdoms’ doctrine that led to a century of conflict before religious toleration prevailed across Scotland and England with the Claim of Right Act 1689. Scots law reiterated then that Jesus Christ alone is head of the Church and this remained paramount in the Union of 1707, was reinforced again in the 1921 Church of Scotland Act, and is affirmed by each monarch in the Coronation Oath.

Freedoms hard won, and long cherished, are held dear with reason

Freedoms hard won, and long cherished, are held dear with reason. Theresa May warned the House of Commons last November that “making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions. It has unintended consequences.”

I never imagined myself involved in action like this. But Scots would not have precious freedoms today had our Kirk forebears shrunk back in their time. I truly hope that our government will see what a grave incursion this ban on public worship is – to centuries-old Scots law as well as modern Human Rights protections – and also the suffering it is inflicting on many. The proper place of Christian worship must be restored so that, as Martin Luther said (amid a far more deadly epidemic), our people may ‘learn through God’s word how to live and how to die’.”

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