Communications Manager Paul Huxley summarises why we’ve been supporting church leaders to challenge the government on banning in-person, gathered worship.
It’s been a year since UK churches first started closing their doors for gathered worship. Over that year, Christian Concern has supported a number of legal challenges of English, Welsh and Scottish governments’ decisions to ban gathered worship.
The case in Scotland is the first time any of these challenges has proceeded as far as judicial review. But it is important to understand why Christian Concern has enabled these challenges – what we are saying and what we aren’t saying.
As much as we’ve tried to explain our position over the months, it’s easy to miss elements of what we’ve said and get the wrong impression. This article seeks to gather what we’ve said together to help people understand.
Is the church hurt by worship bans?
The first thing to consider is whether there is any real loss to Christians by moving all church meetings to Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and the like.
The pandemic has clearly led to a huge uptake in video calls and in improving Christian’s understanding of how to use technology. Undoubtedly this has spurred creativity and change that will serve the church over years to come, even when (if!) social distancing is over.
Nevertheless, these technologies simply cannot replace everything that takes place in gathered worship.
Dr Joe Boot wrote in detail about this in The Way is Shut: evangelical silence and the illusion of virtual Church:
“In addition, human beings are quite obviously embodied beings. I am not essentially a soul that happens to have a body, one that I am at liberty to reckon with or not – I am a body. All of life, our relationships, work, knowledge, love and worship, are experienced and expressed in the flesh, in the fullness of our personhood. We see how critical this is when we look at the incarnation – God Himself becoming flesh.”
More recently, I focused on corporate singing, as I asked ‘how long can worship be curtailed?’
Dr Martin Parsons, an experienced theologian and author, also provided an expert statement in the first case outlining the importance of gathered worship to Christians.
It’s not just that Christians miss out on their hobby though. Churches that serve vulnerable people – people with mental health challenges, people facing homelessness or addictions – lose important opportunities to check in with such people who may not even have the means to join in with virtual church.
Are we saying all churches should have stayed open?
All along, our position has been that the government should allow church leaders to decide whether to gather for worship. This means the government ought not to legislate on these matters, but is well within its rights to advise church leaders.
In November, when asking supporters to oppose the November ban on worship services in England, we said:
“Not every church will want or be able to open. That’s entirely up to the church and its leaders – and in some cases the venue they hire. The important principle is that the decision is made by churches, not the state.
“Not everyone can come to church anyway. Some people will need or want to take extra precautions. Some with long term illnesses are unable to come to church for extended periods. Churches should still use technology to help these members participate where possible. But people in this situation, even more than everyone else, will likely be aware of what we miss out on when we are not gathered together…
“… Our supporters come from different church backgrounds with different beliefs, practices and emphases. The Christian Concern family has supporters from very diverse church backgrounds and denominations. Different Christians will be more concerned with some elements than others. Some will find the loss of church services harder to bear than others. Even if you aren’t concerned about services stopping, could you speak out on behalf of your Christian brothers and sisters who are?”
During the third English lockdown, churches have been allowed to gather for worship. Some have continued with virtual church only, many have implemented hybrid services. Despite new mutations of Covid-19 that are understood to spread more easily, we are still unaware of any evidence that church services have led to outbreaks.
Has the church been unfairly treated compared to other groups?
Some may say that lockdown restrictions have hurt the church, but no more than other groups in society, asking why churches should get special treatment.
It’s important to note that churches are not mere clubs – they have a different, higher calling than gyms, theatres and even schools.
However, the governments’ approaches to each lockdown have not been consistent across different groups. The first English lockdown saw garden centres and other businesses allowed to open while churches were closed even for private prayer. The second lockdown in November kept schools open (around 30 hours/week of close contact – relatively high risk) while banning churches from meeting for worship (around 90 minutes with no close contact). The risk of schools was clearly greater – around 30 hours each week with hard-to-control children vs. around 90 minutes with responsible adults.
This means that the government’s judgement was not based on safety but on its ideological view that education is vastly more important than gathered church worship.
Are worship bans actually needed (is worship safe?)
The safety of gathered worship has been questioned throughout the pandemic – in large part due to the virus spreading in ‘mega-churches’.
But a rural parish church of 15 people and a dog (for example) is a vastly different challenge to a cult of 230,000 people refusing to help trace and slow the virus’ spread. One-size-fits-all rules don’t make sense.
Throughout the pandemic, the use of church buildings has been allowed to serve the community – e.g. by feeding the homeless or offering vaccines – but bans have made saying a prayer to those same people a criminal offence.
In June we wrote:
“Since late March, churches in the UK have been in the extraordinary position of being prohibited by law from facilitating corporate worship. Churches were allowed to run food banks or blood donation centres, but not to offer prayer. Even when the government allowed churches to open up for private prayer, it was clear that praying with another person (even a minister) would be illegal and could result in a criminal conviction.”
It is unclear how the same venue, with the same number of people, can be deemed safe for secular reasons but become unsafe if used for worship, as mentioned in a microbiologist’s expert report. Again, this indicates that the government’s decisions have been driven by a preference for the permitted activities rather than the necessity of shutting down gathered worship.
There is precious little evidence that Covid-19 has substantially spread in UK churches. Ahead of the second English lockdown in November, government scientists admitted they didn’t have good evidence to justify closing places of worship. This led to Church of England archbishops and other faith leaders calling for the government to change its mind on banning gathered worship.
England’s third lockdown (starting in January 2021) used relatively tough measures, shutting schools in response to new variants that seemed to transmit more easily. Nevertheless, the government appeared to listen to us, allowing churches to stay open for worship services. This approach appears to have been highly successful – the policy has been able to heavily control the virus’s spread without infringing freedom of worship. We are still not hearing reports of substantial spread taking place at church services, suggesting church leaders can be trusted to make the right decisions for their people.
Christians need to be aware that although health and safety is important, it is not the only thing to consider. Dave Brennan (Brephos) wrote back in July that Christians ought to be wary of making an idol of safety or public opinion:
“Even if we are to agree that lockdown is doing more help than harm purely in health terms (that itself is an important debate to be had; because of lockdown, cancer patients are undiagnosed or untreated, domestic abuse is on the rise, mental health problems and suicides are increasing, and of course all manner of problems, including health problems, will come as a result of economic downturn), it has to be conceded if we believe our Bibles (and scientific reason) that many more infectious plagues are yet to come, probably of far greater severity than Covid-19 (which is closer to the common flu end of the spectrum than the black death end): disease and risk are here to stay, likely increase.
“Are we going to give up meeting every time ‘pandemic’ is declared? Is this how we propose to spend these last days?”
Why is church independence important?
At first blush, it may seem far-fetched to be concerned about freedom of worship. Even those of us who are sceptical about the civil government’s decisions tend to think of its actions as well-intended.
But this cannot be taken for granted. Around the world, less benign governments clam down on church freedoms using a pretence of public safety. Dr Martin Parsons gave examples of this phenomenon and argued that in a global world, actions in the West can be used to justify oppressive actions elsewhere:
“Whilst these trends have been going on for at least 20 years, what has changed recently is the globalisation of the world by the internet. That means that whatever happens in the UK gets reported in tomorrow’s online newspapers in Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on.
“That is why it is so vital that we safeguard freedom of religion in this country, because whatever way we allow it to be chipped away at in this country will open a door to similar or worse erosion in other countries.
“For example, when in 2018 Amanda Spielman criticised the Church of England for having opposing plans for state registration and Ofsted inspection of Sunday schools, it was not simply a question of the chief inspector of Ofsted seeking to resurrect an issue the government had dropped; there was also a real risk that such debate would lead to Islamic countries such as Pakistan, following suit and requiring Sunday schools to register with the government – instead of being able to operate freely as they currently do.”
The independence of the church to regulate its own worship is a hard fought and important principle. “Freedom of worship is an essential barrier,” said Andrea Williams in June.
“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 isn’t too hard to see this breach of religious freedom even now during calls for bans on so-called ‘conversion therapy’. Campaigners want to see a ban extend to prayer in churches, claiming that it is harmful. Do we really want to leave it with the civil government to decide these things?
Our constitution is strong in defending the freedom of the church. Andrea Williams unpacked some of the constitutional history as she wrote on Magna Carta and church lockdown:
“Magna Carta 1297 is still celebrated as the foundation stone of English democracy and rule of law. Its very first chapter reads:
“FIRST, We have 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…
“Most of the other provisions of Magna Carta have been repealed by now; but not this one.”
This is not all that we’ve written relating to coronavirus and the lockdowns.
We’ve sought to help Christians learn from Christians of the past in Tim Dieppe’s articles, Lessons from Spurgeon on coronavirus and Lessons from Church history and past plagues.
We’ve helped churches navigate the quickly–changing laws and guidance relating to gathered worship and hosted a discussion on how to hold a Covid-compliant drive-in service.
We’ve written prayer guides and help for people beginning to home educate due to the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, Christian Concern has sought to equip Christians and churches to bring the hope of Christ to their families, churches and communities by making the most of the freedoms they have and protecting freedom of worship where governments have crossed a line.
I am convinced that without our work, churches and Christians would be less free than they currently are to worship together. Let’s pray for a further breakthrough in the upcoming ruling in Scotland.
Find out more about Church lockdown