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Churches urge Boris, do not shut us down again in 2021

December 2020 | by Mike Judge

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, CREDIT Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.
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Church leaders from across England and Wales have urged the government not to close down places of worship again after lockdowns were imposed in November.

There was widespread opposition to the second Covid-19 lockdown, imposed in England last month, which banned communal worship.

A similar lockdown was imposed earlier in Wales. Writing in this edition of ET, Cardiff pastor Peter Naylor explains why he and others took legal action against the Welsh government (see p.13).

Another legal action, this time against the closure of churches in England, was backed by over 70 pastors.

An open letter criticising the government’s ban on communal worship received over 1,700 signatures. A petition on the Parliament website attracted the support of over 31,000 people.

The leadership of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales wrote to the Prime Minster registering their objection.

The letter, which was also signed by other faith leaders, said, ‘We strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time.’

John Stevens, national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, said he was also opposed to the second lockdown.

He said, ‘I am deeply concerned that the new national lockdown is unjustified and highly likely to be unlawful.’

Campaign group Christian Concern is leading a judicial review of the government’s closure of churches in England.

Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, who led the previous legal challenge, said, ‘The government seems not to understand the very important and long held constitutional position of the independence of church and civil government.’

The Evangelical Alliance said it was ‘concerned’ by the government’s decision to stop public worship in England and called for a re-think.

It said, ‘The lack of prior consultation and evidence of any concerns makes the decision very difficult to understand. We ask the government to review this matter urgently.’

The Christian Institute also expressed its misgivings. Director Colin Hart said, ‘This is not like the lockdown in March where everyone was in the same boat.

‘There are now glaring inconsistencies in the way churches are being treated compared to other sectors of society.

‘For example, universities have been linked to massive outbreaks yet they will be allowed to continue as normal.

‘Churches have complied rigorously with Covid rules and protected their congregations, yet they are being forced to close.’

The government’s Chief Medical Adviser and Chief Scientific Adviser admitted that the decision to close churches in England was not based on clear evidence.

Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were grilled by a group of MPs on the Science and Technology Committee in Westminster.

When asked about the evidence to support the closure of churches, they admitted the data was ‘very weak’ and they said, ‘we haven’t got good evidence’.

The Chief Medical Adviser also acknowledged that ‘all the faith communities in the UK have been extraordinarily responsible’ in the way they have dealt with the pandemic.

The government advisers claimed the decision to close churches was ‘part of a package’ of measures which is expected to bring the rate of infection (‘R’) down.

They urged people not to attempt to ‘pick apart’ how effective each individual intervention might be, because that could undermine the overall package.

During a debate in the House of Commons MPs from across the political spectrum voiced their concerns.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May said, ‘My concern is that the government making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a government in future with the worst of intentions.’

Labour MP Judith Cummins said, ‘Many of my constituents across many faiths have asked me to tell the government and the Prime Minister that collective acts of worship are essential and should not be made illegal by any government.

‘They are an essential part of their faith and an essential part of their lives. I ask the government to reconsider the ban on collective worship.’

DUP MP Jim Shannon said, ‘Every one of us in this House has received numerous emails and telephone calls about the closure of church services.

‘I understand that, and I am making a plea to the Prime Minister for that to be reviewed.’

In an article for christiantoday.com, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron MP, said, ‘whilst I have come to the conclusion that the Church can weather a month of closure, I think it is absolutely right for Christians to fight for churches to be opened subsequently for collective worship.’

He added, ‘The Church is of colossal importance. It has no comparison. Our passion and deep desire to see it opened isn’t just a matter of self-interest. It isn’t our club. It isn’t the prop for our mental wellbeing.

‘It is where we unite in worship of the God of the universe, as he has commanded us to do. It is the hope for the world and the place people are brought to eternal life.

‘So I will fight for churches to be re-opened, not because I miss the singing and the coffee but because it is a fundamental part of our identity as Christians.’

At the time this edition of ET went to print, the ban on communal worship in England was still in place.

Mike Judge, editor