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Church leaders challenge state’s lockdown authority

August 2020 | by Mike Judge

Michael Nazir-Ali
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A group of 25 church leaders — including a former chaplain to the Queen — has filed a legal action to challenge the government’s decision to shut down churches during the Covid-19 crisis.

Although the government has since allowed churches to reopen for gathered worship with restrictions in place, the group — supported by the Christian Legal Centre — still objects to the way the government acted during the lockdown.

In legal documents sent to the High Court, the group of church leaders make clear they do not, for one moment, suggest churches should have ignored the coronavirus emergency.

Rather, they say, the imposition of restrictions should have been a matter for churches to decide for themselves rather than being forced into lockdown by the power of the state.

Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, said the government ‘chose to issue legally binding regulations, backed by a threat of criminal sanction for ministers who fail to keep their churches closed during the lockdown’.

She said this is a breach of fundamental freedoms, enshrined in Magna Carta, for churches to gather for worship without interference from the state.

She said, ‘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‘Most of the other provisions of Magna Carta have been repealed by now; but not this one.’

The group of 25 church leaders who back the legal action include Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, and Revd Melvin Tinker, vicar of St John Newland, Hull.

Revd Tinker said, ‘A church by definition is a meeting of Christian people, namely around the Bible and the sacraments … It’s not simply that Christians are having to forego some gathering, but that the state is denying something Jesus commanded.’

But others disagree with the legal action that has been taken. John Stevens, National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, criticised the move.

In a blog post he said that some evangelicals have regarded ‘the whole lockdown that shut churches, as an infringement of our fundamental freedom of religion, and an unwarranted state interference in the conduct of our worship.

‘While this is superficially understandable, I don’t agree. The claim is both legally inaccurate and potentially dangerous if it encourages churches to flout the clear intent of the guidance that has been issued.’

Mike Judge, editor