On 19 October the Welsh government announced that all the churches in Wales must close from Friday 23 October for 17 days, for three Sundays. In response, 37 ministers of the gospel signed a letter to the government asking it not to ban or restrict services, and giving notice that, if necessary, they would seek a judicial review. Why did the pastors do this?
It is not because we are opposed to the government. We pray for all those in authority and we seek to be law abiding. In fact, seeking a judicial review is honouring those in authority, following a procedure that they themselves have established.
It is not because we do not love our neighbour. Some think we should gladly cease worshipping God in order to save lives. However, not everything has been shut! The government has exercised a choice which to close. Off-licences, for example, may remain open, while churches are deemed to be of little importance by contrast. When people’s lives are in jeopardy, which is most necessary, to be kept safe for one more year on earth, or to hear the gospel and receive everlasting life?
The lockdown itself is costing many lives through the withdrawal of other medical care, the rise in the number of suicides, and so on. It is far from a simple equation: ‘lockdown = loving your neighbour’. In fact, churches have been very careful to follow the regulations and consider guidance too. There is no scientific evidence that churches in Wales have caused the spread of the virus.
A critical moment in history
We have felt compelled to take action because a great principle is now at stake, one so fundamental that, if we sacrifice it, we shall have surrendered the autonomy of the church and our freedom to worship God.
God has ordered society in certain spheres: family, church, and state (nation). Each sphere is under some authority, and there is no authority higher than God. As far as the church is concerned, the only head is Jesus Christ, the King of kings.
He has entrusted church government to his ordained elders and pastors. These men are under God, authorised to carry out all of, and only, his commands. God has not given authority to any government to interfere in his church. When a ruler does that, he or she is going beyond their rights (acting ultra vires).
What does British Law say?
The independence of the church is enshrined in the British constitution. The Magna Carta of 1215 states: ‘First, that we have granted to God, and by this charter have confirmed for evermore, that the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.’
This is still in force today. Would the Welsh government seriously publish its intention to rescind this charter, for the whole world to know what it is doing?
In her coronation oath, Queen Elizabeth II swore to ‘preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them’.
What about human rights?
In the Reith Lectures last year, Lord Jonathan Sumption explained that there are human rights that are so fundamental that without them social existence is not possible and a community cannot function as a democracy (Trials of State, p.50).
The European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU) protects freedom of religion. The UK has accepted that convention. Its provision of freedom of religion has been tested in courts across Europe, and worldwide, and the courts have repeatedly upheld the church’s liberty to assemble and worship God.
Can the government understand the church?
A government that is secular, and politicians who do not believe in God, cannot really understand the Christian worldview. A Christian knows himself to belong to Jesus Christ. His membership of the church and his worship of God is for him of ultimate importance, so much so that throughout history many men and women of faith have given their lives rather than deny Christ. They have disobeyed despots rather than disobey God.
Consider the Hebrew midwives; and Rahab; Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; Daniel; the apostles; the Oxford martyrs; the two Margarets; William Tyndale and others. ‘Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge”’ (Acts 4:19). It is not safe or right to go against conscience and the Word of God. Today, the Welsh government is forcing such a conflict upon us.
Seeking a way forward
Some will say, ‘Just obey the government; go home, go online, and ride out the storm.’ The internet does make broadcasting of teaching possible. But Christ has called the church to assemble. Hebrews 10:25 was written to persecuted believers.
‘Church’ means a congregation. Many elements of worship cannot be exercised online. An online virtual presentation is not truly ‘a meeting’. The suggestion that we should simply go online is extremely dangerous to the nature and existence of the church.
A legal challenge
Mounting a legal challenge is not civil disobedience. We are seeking a judicial review because we believe that there is a legal basis on which to recover our right to assemble, which has been taken away. Previous approaches to the government have been ignored, and this has driven us to seek legal redress.
Earlier in the year, the English churches made a similar approach to the Westminster government, and agreement was secured: the churches would not pursue the matter in the courts, and the government would not close the churches again. The regulations in Wales go against that settlement.
The cost of failure?
If we fail in this, what will the cost be? We are not thinking about the next two Sundays, but the next two centuries.
The government has already indicated that the lockdown will be repeated in January and that will not be the last time. Can we go through 2021 being told when we can and cannot go to church?
In the UK, about 1600 people die every day, most of them not from the virus. Every day, men and women are departing this world for eternity, for heaven or hell. We have the words of eternal life, of heaven opened, by Jesus Christ. The church must assemble and must preach the Saviour.
We are at a turning point. Constitutional liberty to worship God as he has commanded is the prize. In the future, our grandchildren will ask, What did you do at that crucial time? Committing our cause to the Lord, we stood fast. Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Revd Dr Peter J. Naylor is minister of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff.
This article was commissioned before the government in Westminster ordered the closure of places of worship in England.