Freedom of worship is ‘essential’

26 June 2020

Andrea Williams comments on why it’s so important to challenge the government over lockdown restrictions to churches.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Glorifying God, enjoying him forever is the broad definition of worship, which will go on for eternity.

After death is defeated, after the dead are raised to life, after every tear has been dried and the Heavens and Earth are remade, we will continue to worship God, better than we ever have in this life.

I point this out because we face the real danger of losing eternal perspective during the coronavirus pandemic. Freedom to worship the living God is not ours or anyone else’s to be given away or to be balanced against health and safety. It is given by God alone, and no one can take it away.

I can already hear the objections. “Don’t we worship with our lives, not just by singing in church?”. “We are still worshipping at home in our living rooms”. “Church ministers and members have worked unbelievably hard during the lockdown to minister to God’s people and enable worship”.

Yes, yes, three times yes. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life exhorting Christians to worship God beyond the walls of the church, in their homes, at work and in public. Our great, beautiful God deserves all our wholehearted worship from dawn until dusk, piercing through the public/private and secular/sacred barriers we erect.

But there is a good barrier that exists for our protection – the Church’s independence from the civil government. And that boundary is there to protect the Church from meddling princes and prime ministers.

Around the world, nations have recognised this principle in different ways. Human rights courts like the European Court of Human Rights has consistently upheld it. The very first amendment to the US constitution bans lawmakers from ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion.

Our long history of working through this issue in the UK complicates the situation – but dating back to Magna Carta, we have the solid principle that:

“It is accordingly our wish and command that the English Church shall be free, and that men in our kingdom shall have and keep all these liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all things and all places for ever.”

The Church of England, though established in law makes clear in the 37th article of religion that:

“we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments … but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers”.

Even in the established Church, which shares a governor with the civil administration (e.g. Parliament, the Judiciary), the principle of free worship is upheld. The ministering of God’s Word and the Sacraments – which happens in gathered church worship – is not in the civil government’s jurisdiction.

This principle is a significant and positive legacy of Christianity – even of ‘Christendom’. Although there have been ups and downs over the centuries as Christians have worked out where that boundary should be, no other civilisation in history has respected freedom of worship and conscience as much as the Christian West. That should be no surprise – the Bible itself recognises the need to submit to the true authority of civil rulers (e.g. Romans 13:1-4), but also the limits on rulers’ interference in worship (2 Chronicles 26:16-21) and the need for Godly defiance when true worship is at stake (e.g. Daniel 3).

The Church has her own governance. Apostles, archbishops, bishops, vicars, presbyters, pastors, elders, deacons – whatever they are called and what ever ecclesiology they hold, they rule over a church’s worship and it is they – not MPs, Lords or Health and Safety Inspectors – who have authority and responsibility over their flock.

Why am I making such a fuss about this? Because despite every good intention, and while serving Christians and the wider community at enormous effort, the Church is in danger of losing this freedom.

G.K. Chesterton was wise when he told us not to remove barriers unless we knew why they were there:

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

It is only when we abandon the principle of church independence that we will see the corrosive effects of state interference. In the present crisis we have openly declared – by omission as much as anything else – that the government may shut down or restrict church services on health and safety grounds, regardless of the church’s views.

Nearly all of us likely agree that churches were right to take measures to protect people from Covid-19 for at least a period. But it wasn’t churches who made the ultimate decision and only a few (but notable) churches have made the principled stand that it is unlawful for the government to decide for them.

Now we’ve conceded that health and safety rules over our worship, what comes next?

I’ve seen health and safety cited as post facto justification for restricting Christian faith and practice time after time. Like in the case of Shirley Chaplin – the hospital was clear at first that they didn’t want Nurse Shirley’s cross to be visible. But as discussions continued, they changed their reasoning to pretend it was all about health and safety –despite expert evidence debunking the claim.

It really isn’t difficult to imagine what comes next. Even J.K. Rowling faces consistent public abuse now because people paint her (quite modest) views on women’s rights as a credible threat to the well-being of transgender people. We see the government continually promising to ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for health and safety reasons (again, with no justification in reality). Don’t think that such laws would only hit counsellors  (there is, de facto, already a  regulatory ban to help people move away from certain sexual behaviours and temptations) – once they have a foot in the door, they will be after any church that dares to help someone who wants to live in line with Biblical sexuality.

God’s word is a double-edged sword and contains many sharply-written passages. A pastor was already prosecuted in Northern Ireland (unsuccessfully) for preaching truths that were ‘grossly offensive’. We are working with ministers who’ve lost their positions in schools because of their preaching from the pulpit. How many more grievous prosecutions and removals from office might we see if we take down the fence that protects our worship services?

That’s without even considering the next disease around the corner. What if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the autumn/winter? What if it mutates and our antibody responses are insufficient to protect us? What about the seasonal flu?

Where is the limit? Where is the boundary?

We may even trust our current Prime Minister, known for having some libertarian instincts, to respect church independence most of the time. But who knows who may hold the levers of power in the future?

If you think this is far-fetched, consider the problems our culture faces today. Abortion culture, extreme transgender ideology, extraordinary widespread intolerance of Christian views in public places. These problems were nearly ‘unthinkable’ twenty-five  years ago. And the problems we faced then would have been ‘unthinkable’ twenty-five years earlier. How many MPs who voted for the Abortion Act in 1967 expected over 200,000 to take place each year, many in the ‘comfort’ of the mother’s home?

So why would we ever trust that the government would only ever override church independence when the stakes are very serious? Why would we willingly remove barriers that are there for our protection?

True worship is infinitely more important than health and safety. We must recover our confidence in this truth. Governments may relegate worship to ‘non-essential’ – Christians should never concede this point.

That’s why church leaders are encouraging us to continue challenging the government over lockdown restrictions. The government has loosened restrictions on churches because these church leaders have stood. But no matter what the government offers us, we must keep making this principled stand.

We know that the government does not understand or recognise this, but I am urging my brothers and sisters in Christ to see again the centrality of worship in the Christian life. Yes – we should submit to the authorities, but we must remember the authorities are called to be God’s servants. The state is not our ultimate authority and it does not confer to churches the right to worship. Why should we now let it restrict the right given to us by God himself?

The barrier that stops state interference with worship has been placed in the right place for centuries. We must repair it.

My prayer is that we, the Church, will recover a love for the freedom of worship we have enjoyed in our nation’s past, along with zeal to defend it. And most of all that we would love Jesus more than life, worshipping him with every fibre of our being.

Find out more about Church lockdown
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