Leaders take a confident stand for Christian freedoms

2 October 2020

Paul Huxley comments on how church leaders across the country – and the world – have come together to fight for Christian freedoms.

Last week, over 700 church leaders wrote to the governments of all four UK nations, urging them not to ask churches to stop services again.

It was wonderful to see so many leaders, from different types of churches, speak of the broader issues raised by Covid lockdown policies: the importance of the Church, the many other health risks being caused, the impact on the poorest and the hope of everlasting life in Jesus.

Since then, the coverage of this letter also provided interesting opportunities for Christians to once again talk about the Church’s response to Covid-19 and where we should go from here.

The Sunday Times covered the letter with the headline ‘Churches vow to stay open this time’.

They had spoken to one of the letter’s authors, Rev Dr Matthew Roberts, who said:

“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.”

Although not all the signatories would be ready to take this stand, the language of the letter was insistent: “we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again”.

Hope beyond death

On Sky News this week, Rev. Dr Ian Paul, one of the signatories to the letter, had the opportunity to speak to Kay Burley.


First, he broadened the health issue out beyond the coronavirus. Church leaders are particularly aware of the impact that lockdown and social distancing has had on people’s mental health. Might we be prioritising beating Covid-19 at the expense of the rest of our health, both physical and mental? Official government estimates currently suggest that we are.

Second, he gives a realistic and theological reflection on the idea that we even can ‘beat the virus’. He later quotes Psalm 103 to remind viewers that we are like grass that withers, but the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. We are not the masters of our destiny but, until Jesus returns, all will die. Something or other will overcome us and the idea that we even can beat or control the virus is misleading.

Finally, he emphasises the importance of people’s spiritual lives; that Christians have “something really vital to share” in answer to the questions and worries of the world that many have. He closes on Jesus’ frequent message to his disciples, “Do not fear.” He points to Jesus who “overcame death” as the answer for our fears.

Well done to Ian for taking this opportunity to speak in a distinctively Christian way about the challenges our society actually faces.[1] Wouldn’t it be wonderful if many more Christian leaders made the most of their opportunities, most of which will not be televised, to point to the real answer to our needs – Jesus Christ?

Society needs the Church. It needs a healthy Church that truly follows God, that speaks and acts in obedience to Jesus and that realises it’s not a mere club.

Hyper-cautious church

I’ve seen just about everyone criticised over the coronavirus response. Politicians of all persuasions. Scientific advisors of all persuasions. Companies being too reckless with health, or being so careful they rely heavily on furlough or announce redundancies. Schools are criticised as being too cautious, or not being cautious enough.

The one institution I’ve heard criticised on only one side of the equation is the Church.

I’ve heard believers and non-believers alike complain that the Church’s response to Covid-19 has been weak. That they’ve too easily shut up shop and hidden away in Zoom meetings rather than boldly proclaiming the hope of Christ or serving their communities. That criticism may not be fair, but it intrigues me that I’ve barely heard any criticisms of UK churches being criticised for taking too many risks or for not being compliant enough.

UK churches have acted nothing like the handful of megachurches (some or many of which are actually cults) in places like South Korea that ignore all advice and create perfect environments to spread the virus. Nearly all UK churches have been extremely conscientious in following, even going beyond the letter of the law and the guidance. Under full lockdown restrictions, some churches creatively held outdoor services, which was broadly covered as a feel-good story. Since meeting has been allowed, I’ve heard of no churches breaking the law and nearly all are putting significant effort into minimising the risk of spreading the virus, even at the expense of the worship service.

Paul Levy, minister of the International Presbyterian Church in Ealing, told the Times that his 200-strong congregation was singing hymns and psalms. Contrary to what has become folk law, singing in church is not illegal in England. Where hospitality, travel and entertainment industries have consistently pushed the government to relax rules (i.e. increase risk) to help their income, Christians have, by and large, been hyper-cautiously going above and beyond the law and guidance.

The biggest public challenge to the government’s restrictions on worship during the lockdown was facilitated by Christian Concern. On just about every legal challenge that Christian Concern has been involved with, there are non-Christians ready to throw criticism our way. But the only criticism I remember on defending the right of churches to open was from other Christians, with non-Christians being generally sympathetic. Have we properly understood the public mood?

Offer something unique

Back in March, when the virus was spreading at its fastest, when the estimates of its danger were significantly higher, many Christians spoke of faith over fear, posting messages on social media highlighting the importance of trusting God at a difficult time.

What about now? What message is the Church projecting to the world? Is our need of God in any way reduced?

It feels like our message has morphed from ‘look how good God is!’ to ‘look how responsible the Church is!’.

Rev. David Robertson, picked up on this in one of the reasons he gave for signing the letter to the government:

“The letter recognizes the importance of public worship, not just for the Lord’s people, but also for the wider health of the nation. It seems to me that many church leaders are afraid that their church will be the one where a Covid-19 cluster breaks out and that this will result in bad publicity. That is understandable, but it should not be our primary concern. It’s not just politicians who are risk averse.”

Niagara declaration

Over in Canada, many church leaders have started making a stand that shows they understand this. With echoes of Magna Carta, the Niagara 2020 Declaration re-asserts the independence of the Church and God-given freedoms of worship, conscience, doctrine and family, among others.

It outlines the historic commitments made by the West and by Canada in particular to recognise the Kingship of Jesus. The document goes on to express Christian freedoms across the different spheres of life where, in most cases, the government is threatening to overstep its mark.

One of the main organisers of the declaration is Rev. Dr Joe Boot who heads up our Wilberforce Academy and is part of the wider Christian Concern team. He explains how Canada, and the West as a whole, is on the brink of criminalising Christianity.

Even since publishing the article, some of his fears have been realised. And in the face of very serious legal and policy threats, these church leaders are standing with remarkable confidence. Some Christians may have minor, niche theological differences about exactly how the civil government and church ought to relate on some of the points raised. But the document is an enormous breath of fresh air, if for no other reason than that it recognises limits on what the government may do.

So much of the Church’s response to Covid-19 restrictions has been to cite one sentence in Romans 13:1 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”) as if it affords absolute power in all matters to the civil government, except explicitly forbidding obedience or commanding disobedience to God.

But both the English letter and the Canadian declaration exude a much-needed confidence.

It feels so rare, and yet the word’s etymology is simply ‘with faith’. Faith’s expression is confidence.

Once again, we need faith, not fear.

A greater hope than vaccines

Rev. Matthew Roberts also explained the motivation behind the letter in The Critic:

“Huge amounts of effort and money are being poured into research into treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, and rightly so. We must do what we can to limit the impact of this and all other diseases on human life. But we have in our midst another solution to disease and death, and one of a different and greater order. In a time when humanity is being destroyed it is God’s invitation, in his Son Jesus Christ, to have our humanity eternally restored.”

A number of ministers have pointed out on Twitter that, if nothing else, the coronavirus has shone a glaring light at the insufficiencies of some of the UK’s most prized idols. The government, the NHS, the BBC and ‘science’ have all taken significant hits in 2020.

What an opportunity to proclaim that our God is better than any idol! What an opportunity to show that only the true God can save us from death!

The fields are still white for harvest. Let’s get reaping.


[1] At Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, we have often used the phrase ‘Speaking of Jesus Christ in public life’ as one of our goals – and in our media appearances we have exactly this goal.

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