A woman holds a cross and prays in front of a closed Westminster Cathedral on April 12, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Our national spiritual leaders have fallen short

Why aren’t churches straining at the boundaries Caesar has fenced them off with?

Artillery Row

Public worship is not a commodity, not a non-essential business, not a sport or hobby but lies at the heart of the well-being of the nation. Why is it, then, that those entrusted with spiritual leadership on the national stage have been invisible? Perhaps they too have been captured by the fear that grips the nation?

The freedom to sing, pray, and listen to the Bible are treasured privileges people have died for

There is something precious about the freedom to worship that goes much deeper than the needs of Christian people. The freedom to sing, pray, listen to the Bible, to sit in an ancient building which has not closed for centuries, plague or no plague, pandemic or no pandemic, are treasured privileges people have died for. These freedoms are a window, or an icon into the precious freedoms that our nation enjoys. To imperil one is to endanger the other. The public worship of the Christian church is essential for our nation’s well-being.

The nation cannot be indefinitely held in fear pending the arrival of the magical solution of a vaccine. Rather we have to learn to adapt, manage risk, one might almost say, to trust God. We have compartmentalised health, economics, business, science, church and society and consequently are no longer equipped to understand the inter-relationships – a task which was previously that of theology or faith.

We must never again be complicit in the closing of the doors of our churches for public Christian worship

The slogan “Save the NHS” has acquired a divinity previously reserved for the Almighty. We are viewing everything through a single lens. Yet, the flourishing of the nation does not depend upon health alone, nor simply longevity of life, nor even upon the capacity of the health services. Rather, to flourish as individuals and as a nation also requires economic well-being, employment, entrepreneurship, innovation, mental health, family, relationships and, for many, spirituality.

What if the policy of lockdown causes more damage to people, families and society – physically, spiritually and economically – than the virus itself? A threat perhaps to our liberties as a nation, also long fought for and for which many lives were sacrificed.

We must not surrender these freedoms lightly. We must never again be complicit in the closing of the doors of our churches for public Christian worship. To do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation and indeed would be contrary to the basic duties of Christian ministers.

CS Lewis wrote an article published in The Observer in 1958, in which he said, “I dread government in the name of science.” He argued that this would lead to tyranny, reinforced by putting forward “the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent.” What is that pretension today? Fear, fear of death, fear of the pandemic. That is my overriding impression of government press conferences and media commentary. None of this has been challenged by our national spiritual leaders.

Lewis went on to say, and it is worth quoting him in full, because these observations from 60 years ago are so incredibly pertinent to our current dilemmas:

Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.

Just imagine the churches straining at the boundaries Caesar has fenced them off with

Just imagine, for a moment, if immediately after the Prime Minister’s latest broadcast the leaders of the three main Christian groups in Britain had made a joint televised address to the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the secretary of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster all gathered together as one (the broadcasters would broadcast this, wouldn’t they?). They announced that the next day the great and good would be invited to St Paul’s Cathedral, where a service of – naturally legally compliant – prayer and repentance would occur, calling upon God for his mercy.

On the next day, every Cathedral in the land would host an identical service. The following Sunday identical services would be held in every church and chapel in the land. The Archbishops and other church leaders make clear that ministers will visit and pray with people as requested and that public worship will continue. Just imagine. Just imagine the churches straining at the boundaries Caesar has fenced them off with. Just imagine. Because even if it doesn’t start with the grandest amongst us, start it will.

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