Permission to re-open on 4 July is a welcome start but not enough, say 25 pastors and bishops, as they ask the High Court to protect ancient liberties of the Church.
After the courts in Germany, France and the United States overturned the wholesale lockdown of places of worship, the UK government sought to prevent a similar legal challenge in the UK by negotiating with various groups of religious leaders in June. Those efforts culminated in a surprise announcement on 23 June – just before the expiry of the 3-month time limit for applications for judicial review of the lockdown regulations – that churches may ‘re-open’ for services from 4 July.
The Guidance for the safe use of places of worship, published by the Government this week, makes recommendations on how to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission at places of worship. Most of the recommendations, such as avoiding singing in choirs, are worded at present as advice rather than binding rules, as Tim Dieppe points out.
‘We cannot let this go unchallenged’
A coalition of high-profile leaders of some of the largest, fastest growing, and most diverse churches in the UK, have welcomed this development, however are cautioning that the closure of churches should never have happened in the first place, warning that the government needs to go further. “For the first time in centuries, the government made it a criminal offence to go to church on a Sunday. We cannot let this go unchallenged. We need assurances this will not happen again,” stated John Quintanilla, pastor of Hebron Christian Faith Church in Coventry.
The group, led by Christian Concern co-founder Rev. Ade Omooba MBE, also includes the President of Eurovision Mission to Europe Dr David Hathaway, former Chaplain to the Queen Dr. Gavin Ashenden, and the President of Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.
The group first threatened legal action in its pre-action letter of 29 May, and provided the government with an expert report by an eminent environmental microbiologist, Dr Ian Blenkharn, which described the government ban on church services as ‘bizarre’, ‘contradictory’, ‘perverse’ and ‘unreasonable’.
The report concluded: ‘In light of the current knowledge of COVID-19 coronavirus infection, and the general principles of infection prevention and control, I can identify no scientifically valid barriers to reopening of churches for services as outlined here.’
The government held a series of meetings with members of the group, and then announced a dramatic relaxation of the rules from 4 July.
Nevertheless, the church leaders have resolved to pursue their legal challenge, as there are important legal issues at stake which this guidance does not address, most importantly the government’s interference with church independence.
They will argue that the government should have only given advice to churches on how to avoid spreading Covid-19, but not legislation “backed by a threat of a criminal sanction,” which has been in force since 26 March. They will argue that the compulsory lockdown of all churches breached the first clause of Magna Carta, where King John “granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable”. It also breaches article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which secures freedom of religion.
The group also demands that the government commits not to enforce fines or penalties issued against church ministers who disobeyed the lockdown while it was in force.
A High Court judge, Mr Justice Swift, has considered the documents filed by lawyers working with the claimants and the Christian Legal Centre, and observed that the case “raises significant matters”. He ordered the government lawyers to file a response by 15 July.
Church and government have distinct spheres
The claim argues that nearly all churches had already put measures into place, suspending services and small groups. Whilst recognising the urgency with which the government acted in March, the claim says that blanket impositions on churches were unnecessary and unduly stopped church leaders from putting responsible measures in place to restore worship.
The document setting out the claim reads:
“The 1559 Church-State Settlement still has legal force and is specifically affirmed by every English sovereign in their coronation oath. This sets out separate spheres for church and state. Broadly speaking, the state may not interfere in either the interpretation of Scripture or the sacraments i.e. in effect worship, while the church must be subject to the law in other matters. The government of the realm and the government of the Church were always distinct in our Constitution, despite the same Monarch being ultimately at the head of both.
“… in the long history of epidemics and anti-epidemic measures in this country, up to and including the Spanish influenza in early 20th century, there is no precedent for state legislation which in any degree prohibits and criminalises church services or sacraments.”
The church leaders’ case is also backed by an expert in Christian public theology, Dr Martin Parsons, who concludes his witness statement by saying that English and Scottish law sets out:
“Distinct spheres for church and government, with the government being specifically excluded from interference in matters of worship beyond minor details (adiaphora) in England and excluded from interference in all aspects of worship in Scotland.”
The government should allow church to make own decisions
Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, said: “The Government decided unilaterally to treat Churches as non-essential despite the clear importance of gathered worship to Christians. Blanket bans were imposed on churches while businesses were trusted to make their own decisions. Even in the relaxation of measures announced this week, pub and restaurant owners seem to be more trusted than church leaders. This cannot be right and leaves us with no choice but to take legal action.
“The government should allow churches to make their own decisions about what kind of ministry to host in their buildings, rather than continuing to impose highly restrictive constraints.
“We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state. The government should urgently rescind its restrictions on church ministry.”
Rev Melvin Tinker, Vicar of St John Newland, Hull, International Speaker and Author, said: “The church by definition is a ‘gathering’ thus if such gatherings are not allowed it follows churches are ceasing to exist. For Christians, ‘religion’ is not a private affair, it has a social dimension which is basic. To take this away by legislation is to effectively dismantle the exercising of the Christian religion. Given the unquestionable Christian basis for many of the liberties we enjoy in the West – including democracy itself – the prohibition of churches signifies a massive departure from our heritage and promotes the secularisation process which marginalises the religion aspect of society.”
Matthew Ashimolowo, the Senior Pastor of Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) – an Independent Charismatic Pentecostal Church with over 25 branches in the United Kingdom representing over 6000 people – said: “There is a total lack of understanding on the part of the government with regards to how our churches function. The ongoing approach to the church is not helping our communities who see the church not just as a place to go for personal prayers, but where their whole life revolves around.
“The church is led by responsible people who are well able to put all the necessary preventive measures in place to avoid the spread of the virus like all other organisations.
“We have already invested a lot in fogging machines, sanitisation tunnels and temperature detectors.
“We should not have been relegated to the back of the queue for reopening.”
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