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Artillery Row

Why we’re fighting the Welsh lockdown

The life which we must preserve is not just that of the body, but of the soul also

Imagine if, for the ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown starting today, the Welsh government had stipulated the following. First, test and trace must shut down. All that passing around of swabs soaked in infected mucus is far too high a risk. Second, hospitals must close. They have consistently shown themselves to be the highest-risk type of building for transmission of the virus in the country. Third, supermarkets and the food supply chain must stop; as repeated incidents at food packaging plants have demonstrated, anywhere with food and refrigeration is systemically prone to transmitting viruses.

If you understand why those suggestions are ludicrous, you will be able to understand the reason why church leaders from across Wales, and some from England too, have today taken the first step towards a legal challenge to the Welsh government. It is a pre-action letter for judicial review of the order for churches to close from this Sunday. For the presence of an infectious virus obviously does not justify cancelling the things which identify and treat threats to life, nor the very thing that sustains life. You don’t cancel the cure for fear of an infection. You don’t cancel life to prevent death.

If we are merely bodies, why do we think that preserving lives matters at all?

And there is the point. For a human life is not merely about a body, to be sustained by food, protected by research, and treated by medicine. We are both bodies and souls. You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that, though it is Christianity which has taught it to the world. If we are merely bodies, why on earth do we think that preserving lives matters at all? Why not just euthanise all these pesky elderly and physically weakened people whose vulnerability to this disease is costing the younger and healthier so much? That is what we do with our sick pets and livestock, after all, and their bodies are not so very different to ours. And, horrifically, it is what our pre-Christian forebears often did to their old and sick. Mercifully, we know a human life is more than a mere body, and a person’s value cannot be measured by the soundness of their flesh. There is a reason that hospitals were originally a Christian idea: it is the Christian conviction of the value of a human person, an image of God formed of body and soul, that makes a hospital worth building.

Which means that the life which we must preserve is not just that of the body, but of the soul also. If we must sustain the body then it is because we must also sustain the soul. And Christian worship is about doing both. Jesus Christ was crucified and raised to life in order to give life to our souls and bodies, to enable us to enter the presence of God, now and for eternity. In churches each week God tests our hearts and traces where the threats to true human life lie. He prescribes the cure he has provided for them in his Son. And he gives and sustains real life by drawing us to meet with himself, who is the source of all life.

Not since the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett has the state tried to close the church by force of arms or law

If that sounds strange to modern ears, it is not because it is new or odd, but because we have forgotten it. For this understanding of human life, and the critical part that Christian worship plays in it, is written into the foundations of British law and constitution. The unique and essential nature of the church, as a source of life which neither the state nor healthcare nor supermarkets can give, has been recognised and protected in Britain from at least the time of Magna Carta and arguably from the time of Alfred the Great. 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. For all their differences, the nations of the United Kingdom have been united in recognising that for human life to be truly human, the encounter with God which the Christian church provides is essential and is at all times to be preserved.

Until, that is, the year 2020. While churches were quite willing to close temporarily in the face of what was a largely unknown, and therefore possibly catastrophic, public health emergency in March, the fact that this was mandated by force of law rather than presented as a request to church leaders disturbed many of them deeply. It was an action unprecedented and with profound implications for the future. As a result, in May 25 church leaders wrote a pre-action letter to the UK government seeking urgent review of the law, arguing that the UK government has no legal power to do such a thing. It was a great relief for churches that from the beginning of July almost all restrictions on church worship were cast into the form of guidance rather than law.

To preserve the body (temporarily) while dismissing the soul as irrelevant is self-defeating

It is therefore with dismay that Welsh churches discovered on Monday morning that the same thing is being imposed upon them from this coming Sunday. Of course testing, hospitals and supermarkets are to continue as normal. Also such things as childcare and education, post offices and banks, even car repair workshops are to stay open, because though not strictly essential they are, quite rightly, considered necessary enough. And yet churches, which meet a human need far more profound, and are far more essential to real life than any of these things, have been ordered to close.

To preserve the body (temporarily) while dismissing the soul as irrelevant is self-defeating and nonsensical. For a nation which is trying to preserve life to ban people from worshipping, hearing from and praying to the one who gives life and restores life is folly of the highest order. It also overturns centuries of the laws, values and traditions of Wales and the whole of the UK. As these church leaders are requesting, the Welsh government needs to change course.

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