Artillery Row

The battle to keep churches open

Many Christians now see the ban on worship as contrary to the command of God

In September 700 church leaders signed an open letter telling the government they must not close churches again. Multiple denominations, including 150 leaders from the Church of England, said in the letter that closing churches in a second lockdown “would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.”

But some went further, suggesting that they would feel compelled to keep their doors open on a Sunday even if ordered to close by the Government.

When the Welsh Government began a two-week lockdown, Church leaders across the UK launched a Judicial Review on behalf of Welsh Christians fighting the decision. At least one congregation went further and defied the ban – the moment police broke up their socially-distanced service was even caught on film.

Today 71 church leaders from different traditions have signed a pre-action letter asking the government not to impose a ban on worship services and saying they will pursue judicial review to overturn the ban if necessary. But arguably more potent still is the fact of how many have already signed an open letter today. In 24 hours, 1500 church leaders added their names to a note addressed to the Prime Minister, showing that Christians are growing in frustration with the government’s restriction on their right to meet.

Many Christians think the Government is overstepping its boundaries

Like the previous letter, the ministers studiously avoid pitting the issue as a battle between church and state. They say they have been praying for Boris Johnson and the Cabinet and “wish to assure you that we will continue to do so” and they “appreciate the exceptional difficulties” of trying to deal with the present crisis.

But after asking the Government again not to shut churches, the leaders say they are “baffled and dismayed” to find that the Government has “prohibit[ed] Christians from assembling to worship” and find themselves “caught in a serious tension between our duty to God and our strong desire to submit to our government”:

It is a matter of great distress to us and to Christian people that the government of the nation we love should ban us from gathering to worship the God who claims our highest loyalty; especially when this has been done with no clear reasons for why it is necessary.

The lack of evidence is a real source of frustration for many. The church leaders I’ve spoken to are convinced the Government sees them as an afterthought – or an indulgent luxury to be given back after all more important things like education and retail are restored. In their letter they point out the lengths they have gone to to make their buildings as Covid-secure as anywhere still permitted to be open is.

There are some parliamentarians sticking up for Christians. Today the newly enobled Lord Moylan asked for an assurance that any further restrictions placed on places of worship after the current lockdown expires on 2 December will be announced alongside some evidence as to the dangers of worship in spreading Covid. Lord Greenhalgh for the Government seemed to suggest that Public Health England were looking into the risk of infection in places of worship. Moylan said afterwards: “I was encouraged to hear that the Government was doing an evidence-based study of the risk of infection in places of worship – if I understood the Minister correctly – and the next thing is to get a firm date for its publication.”

This is one of many pitched battles which No.10 has found itself waging without any very obvious rationale

The growing dismay and frustration of church leaders comes with many of them seeing a government overstepping its boundaries in imposing restrictions on religious worship. Most are normally law-abiding – the recent letter says they have “consistently urged those in our churches to abide by the law and have rigorously done so ourselves” – but it’s clear that they believe a line was crossed in ordering churches to close rather than asking. As Rev. Matthew Roberts, one of the organisers of the letter wrote for The Critic regarding the March lockdown:

Not since the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett has the state tried to close the church by force of arms or law; and not since the Toleration Act of 1689 has it tried even to limit or control the gathering of Churches to worship, for Protestants at least … The fact that this was mandated by force of law rather than presented as a request to church leaders disturbed many of them deeply.

Will church leaders comply? In September Paul Levy, the minister of the International Presbyterian Church in Ealing, west London told The Sunday Times that his congregation was already singing hymns and psalms, which is currently illegal. He said in the conflict between what God commands and the law, “We chose to follow God’s commands.”

Similarly at the time Rev. Matthew Roberts told the paper: “Would we be willing to continue to gather people and call people to come together to worship God in a safe way even if the government says we’re not allowed to? The answer for many of our churches is yes, we would.”

It doesn’t look as if the Government made a deliberate choice to restrict Christian worship, but the growing anger amongst nonconformist denominations, and ordinary clergy in the Church of England, means this is one of many pitched battles which No.10 has found itself waging without any very obvious rationale for doing so. Would the church-going Theresa May have restricted Church worship? We’ll never know. But the Prime Minister has potentially done enough to make the clergy advocate law-breaking, which is quite an impressive feat for “the most freedom loving Prime Minister in decades”,  in the words of Jacob Rees Mogg.

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