Church leaders have written to the Welsh Assembly seeking urgent review of the ‘firebreak’ lockdown measures that will uniformly ban churches in Wales from opening for three Sundays.
The pre-action letter argues that blanket restrictions imposed on Welsh churches which begins today, Friday 23 October, at 6pm, will be both unlawful and unnecessary.
Furthermore, the letter states that:
“The forced closure of churches by the state is an extreme interference with Article 9 rights. Such a far-reaching and large-scale intervention may only be justified by the most compelling scientific evidence of a resulting benefit to public health.”
The church leaders, who work in some of the most deprived areas of Wales and are from a range of denominations, acknowledge the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, but argue that the imposition of appropriate anti-pandemic measures should be a matter for church rather than secular authorities.
The group state that they are genuinely open to a constructive dialogue with the Welsh Assembly, but warn that if matters are not addressed urgently, they will seek a judicial review of the ban.
Leaders of English churches have also signed the letter, concerned that the forced closure of churches in Wales would set a precedent that England would follow.
An ‘extreme interference’
On 19 October, Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced, without any parliamentary debate or scrutiny, that Wales would enter a two-week ‘firebreak’ Covid lockdown.
He said the measures were needed to relieve pressure on the health service and slow the spread of the virus in the country.
As part of the measures, he announced church doors will close for public worship other than for funerals or wedding ceremonies for three Sundays, although wedding receptions will not be allowed.
The measures follow a similar blanket ban on church services from the UK government during the first wave of the pandemic, which saw a series of claims brought to the High Court against the government.
UK churches faced tough restrictions, which even involved closing for private prayer.
Courts repeatedly warned that the limitations imposed by the secular government upon the ancient liberties of the Church were potentially unlawful.
In response, the Secretary of State amended the Regulations in July to lift the legally enforceable ‘lockdown’ on the places of worship, which rendered the claims obsolete.
Mr Justice Swift observed at the time that the claims against the government decision to close churches “raises significant issues.”
In May, a French court ruled that the government closure of churches there was unlawful and a ‘seriously and manifestly illegal infringement’ of religious rights, and ordered the ban to be lifted.
Leaders from across Wales
Rev. Peter Greasley, Senior Pastor at Christchurch, Newport, said:
“It is vital for a church that serves on the front lines of a community in need to be able to meet and worship together.
“For 25 years we have served the people of Newport and beyond materially, emotionally and spiritually.
“We run the Newport Foodbank, which local people need urgently at this time. We also work extensively with social services, the police and the local health board who use our facilities at a reduced cost. If our church is not able to function properly then neither can these important services.
“We are particularly concerned that this decision by the Welsh Assembly does not recognise how vital spiritual well-being is to a community.
“Through this letter we are urgently appealing to those in authority to reconsider the closure of churches and to recognise the crucial role churches play in the community across Wales and the rest of the UK.”
Pastor Kevin Berthiaume, Calvary Chapel Cardiff, said:
“I do not envy the government’s position and recognise that the management of this crisis must be overwhelming.
“However, rather than shut down churches, the government should have employed them.
“Throughout our history it has always been the influence and power of the church that has sustained people through the darkest of times.”
Clyde Thomas, lead pastor at Victory Church, Cwmbran, said:
“At our church we work across the board with people from all walks of life. We pray with the hurting, minister to the broken, bind-up the wounds of the abused, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, rehabilitate the addicted, and house the homeless.
“Church services are like the pit stops that refuel and enable a car to race. At a time of national crisis, local church communities are more important, not less.”
Churches are safe havens
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting the group, said: “In the face of a crisis the answer is not to shut down churches that provide the safe havens in our communities across the nations of the United Kingdom.
“Churches are often the glue that holds our communities together; often places where the most vulnerable in our society and those hurting from Covid find community and hope.
“To shut the churches is to shut the places of refuge and rescue in our society.
“The Welsh government must think again, understand the role of their churches and allow them to be open.”
Find out more about Church lockdown