Thames Valley Police have apologised after a Milton Keynes pastor became the first church leader to be prosecuted for allegedly breaking covid-19 regulations despite holding a legal church broadcast in line with government guidance.
At 7.15pm on Friday 20 November, two police officers demanded access to Kingdom Faith Ministries International Church in Milton Keynes, a Pentecostal ministry that has over 4,000 followers worldwide, after reports of ‘loud music’.
Churches holding in-person worship services have been criminalised under the current UK lockdown which began on November 5. However, government guidance clearly stipulates that church leaders can broadcast to their congregation online from their buildings and can work with support staff, such as singers and sound engineers, that it judges are essential to the running of the service, with no limit placed on that number.
The guidance states:
Attending a place of worship for broadcasting or filming an act of worship is permitted but should only involve those people working or volunteering who are essential for the content of the service, and for technical support to enable people to watch and worship online or via a television or radio.
If musicians or singers usually form part of the act of worship that is being broadcast, they may participate but only if they are essential to the delivery of that act of worship. The numbers or people involved should be kept as small as possible to minimise risks and participants should follow social distancing guidance.
Rev. Daniel Mateola, 49, who is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, was holding a legal broadcast service in the church to 150 online members of his congregation. The broadcast was part of a Men’s Conference addressing the struggles his male congregants have suffered in the pandemic.
However, video footage revealed two officers entering the church building and demanding that the support staff leave claiming that they were breaking the regulations.
Pastor Mateola tried to show the officers the government guidance on his laptop, but they refused to look.
When Pastor Mateola continued to politely insist that what they were doing was legal, the officer radioed in for more support and a further 7 police officers were called to the scene. Both officers then began to dictate to Pastor Mateola how he should hold the service and said that he only needed two people in the building: “one to speak and one to hold the phone and record.”
The officers claimed that there were 30 people in the building, but Pastor Mateola insists that there was half this amount, each with their specific role as part of the online broadcast and each in separate rooms socially distancing.
Pastor Mateola told the officers that “you have escalated this unnecessarily.” Support staff then faced no alternative but to leave and after an hour of disruption, the service was forced to end.
‘Music breaks Covid regulations’
After dark on Tuesday 24 November, video footage has also revealed two police officers from Thames Valley police arriving on Pastor Mateola’s doorstep. With documentation in her hand, a female officer read him his rights and notified him that he would be prosecuted for breaking covid-19 regulations, stating:
“I am here to tell you that you are going to be formerly reported to court for what happened…you do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention now something you later rely on in court…you will receive something in the post to tell you what happens next.”
Pastor Mateola responded saying:
“You have totally disregarded government guidelines, I kept showing them to you… but you said it didn’t matter and you were going to go ahead whatever the sergeant said…I complied with you, you totally destroyed everything we were trying to do with the broadcast…you didn’t even know the guidelines and we have ended up being harassed for no reason.”
Incredibly, a male officer then said: “you have broken coronavirus regulations…the music was blaring out loud.”
Pastor Mateola then said:
“This is becoming a nightmare, I’m a reverend…we have over 4,000 followers who cannot go to church…there has been so much unnecessary harassment…but there is no negativity against you as officers, we love you and we thank you for what you do in the community.”
‘I was treated like a criminal’
Pastor Mateola, who is one of 122 church leaders pursuing a judicial review against the English and Welsh government’s decision to close churches, commented: “I am deeply shocked and hurt by what has happened.
“I am relieved that the police have recognised their mistake and have apologised. I have been treated like a criminal while legally seeking to be a blessing and to bring hope to my fellow citizens at a time of great need physically, emotionally and spiritually.
“Sadly, the government and police appear to have no understanding of what a church is, what it does and why it is so important to our society, especially for the most vulnerable and the lonely.
“Although I have joined a legal challenge against the government’s decision to close churches, I have nevertheless followed the regulations that have been in force. Despite this I still found myself facing prosecution. If the police do not understand the regulations it is small wonder that church leaders are confused.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “If someone had said at the start of 2020 that by November the police would be interpreting and enforcing government rules which involved closing down legal broadcasts from a church and prosecuting a pastor, no one would have believed them.
“Yet this is the current reality for church leaders seeking to legally function and faithfully serve their congregation and communities in need under government covid-19 regulations.
“It is astonishing and disturbing in its own right to see nine police officers breaking up a church broadcast and treating it’s leader with such disrespect. But to then turn up unannounced at Pastor Mateola’s family home and prosecute him, is sinister and almost unbelievable.
“There are so many other things the police could be doing to support and protect our communities at this time of crisis. Why go to so much effort to shut down an online church broadcast?
“The wider issue and principle at stake is that the forced closure of churches and interference by the secular government violates centuries of constitutional tradition. The church serves at the heart of our public life and as well as seeking to meet the physical needs of many it exists to bring the Good News and hope of Jesus Christ in the middle of a national crisis.
“We call on the government and the police to urgently engage and seek to fully understand what a church is, why they are so important to our communities, why the freedom to worship matters and why churches are needed now more than ever at this unprecedented time.
“Pastor Mateola is a polite, kind and law-abiding citizen and we welcome the apology from the police.”
Chief Superintendent Robert France, Gold Commander for Thames Valley Police’s response to coronavirus, said: “It appears… there has been a misunderstanding by our officers of the legislation in place in what is an ever-changing and complex area of enforcement.”
He added: “There has been a mistake in the issuing of this ticket and I would like to apologise for the distress I know this is likely to have caused.”