Religious leaders and clerics ask PM to reverse ban on services
Written by on 4 November 2020
Boris Johnson is facing the wrath of religious leaders of all faiths over his decision to ban church services and other forms of worship during the national lockdown.
In an angry and emotional letter to the prime minister and all MPs, nearly 1,200 church ministers of all Christian denominations say they are “baffled”, “dismayed” and in “great distress”.
The move by so many clerics comes after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and Muslim faith demanded a government U-turn.
And it coincides with furious protests in the House of Lords over war veterans aged 90 and over being forced to stand outside in the cold on Remembrance Sunday this weekend.
Under the new lockdown rules, places of worship will be closed from Thursday, unless they are being used for funerals, individual prayer, formal childcare or other essential public services.
The ministers’ letter, already signed by 1,161 ministers and priests, begins by telling Mr Johnson they are praying for the Cabinet and urging him to reconsider the decision to close Christian churches in England.
“The suspension of church services during the first lockdown was something that we were willing to do, given the unknown nature and scale of the threat we were facing,” the ministers wrote.
“Yet the costs were high. Our greatest concern was that for four months God was not publicly worshipped in this country.
“And we have all seen first-hand the deep damage that this caused to many people. Since restarting in July, church has been a vital lifeline to many who have been struggling with loneliness and other negative effects of lockdown.”
Churches have gone to great lengths to ensure that worship need not be suspended again and put in place thorough COVID-secure measures, the ministers told the PM in their letter.
“As a result, attending church now presents a very low risk indeed of transmitting the virus, far lower than many of the activities which are to remain open during this next lockdown,” they continued.
“We fully support the aim of the government to protect the nation from harm. We have consistently urged those in our churches to abide by the law and have rigorously done so ourselves.
“Therefore we are baffled and dismayed to find that your government plans now to close places of worship except for private prayer, and thus to prohibit Christians from assembling to worship.
“We are baffled because there is, to our knowledge, no evidence of any significant contribution to community transmission through churches. And we are dismayed because there seems to be a failure to understand that Christian worship is an essential public service.”
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The priests continued: “It is essential for the mental and spiritual health of millions of Christians. It is essential for providing the nation with the hope that Jesus Christ offers. And it is essential for the glory of God.
“For those reasons governments of western democracies, led by the example of Great Britain, have consistently avoided interfering with the right of the church to meet.
“We therefore find ourselves as church ministers and leaders caught in a serious tension between our duty to God and our strong desire to submit to our government, a tension we hoped and expected never to experience in this country.
“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.”
Leading protests in the House of Lords, former Tory MP Lord Cormack said the government had “not given a single shred of evidence as to why churches should not be open for public worship”.
He said a remembrance service had been planned for this Sunday in Lincoln Cathedral, which was “an immense space where everybody can be properly socially distanced”.
Lord Cormack added: “Instead, the government have come up with an imbecilic answer – that the veterans, all of whom are 90 and over, can stand in the cold and be rained on, but they cannot go into a safe, socially-distanced cathedral. This is a disgrace.”
The former bishop of Oxford and independent crossbencher Lord Harries of Pentregarth said: “Although it is true that churches are remaining open for private prayer, is it not important to recognise that the Christian faith is essentially a corporate activity?
“It is a gathering of the Lord’s people around the Lord’s table on the Lord’s day. Similarly, Islam is no less a communal religion.”
Labour peer Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a Methodist minister, said: “On behalf of the many elderly people for whom the act of worship is the only social activity they have from one week to another, when can their needs be taken seriously into account so that they can enjoy a sense of wellbeing, even in these difficult times?”
But defending the church ban, government minister Lord Greenhalgh, a close ally of the prime minister, said: “We have come to a critical point in the fight against COVID-19.”
And stressing the need to “limit our interaction with others”, he said: “Therefore, with great regret, while places of worship will remain open for individual prayer, communal worship cannot take place at this time.”