By Lianne Kolirin, 1 June 2020
Anger is growing among Christian leaders over the continuing closure of churches.
Primary schools across England opened their gates in a limited capacity today, while non-essential shops can return to business in a fortnight. Yet the government has not issued a clear roadmap for when places of worship can reopen. Last month, the government said that places of worship, in common with pubs, cinemas and hairdressers, must stay shut until at least 4 July.
Now 25 Christian leaders and bishops from across the UK have written to the government’s legal department calling for a judicial review against the blanket lockdown imposed on all churches.
They label the measures “disproportionate”, particularly given that “the overwhelming majority of churches had closed voluntarily in response to the coronavirus pandemic”.
They demand that the churches retain their autonomy, as outlined by the European Court of Human Rights and indeed the Magna Carta. The signatories are angry that they have not been consulted on a sensible easing of lockdown, and that other non-essential services have taken priority.
The document states: “Churches have been placed in the bottom category of the most dangerous and least important services, subjected to severest restrictions for the longest period of time. Those restrictions are imposed by means of formal legislation with a criminal sanction; unlike many other organisations and individuals, churches are not trusted to follow advice.”
Among the signatories is Dr Gavin Ashenden, former chaplain to the Queen. He told the Religion Media Centre that the government’s inaction could be explained by either “ignorance or prejudice”.
“If it is ignorance,” he said, “it would be because they have not given enough thought to the needs of people within a highly secularised society for whom the demands of a life of worship are a personal priority.
“There’s also the fear that secular agencies will have little understanding of or sympathy with religion and might take opportunities presented by a pandemic to express their lack of sympathy. That’s an anxiety that one would like to put to rest, which can only be done by the opening of churches.”
Dr Ashenden said that while measures had to be taken to combat the pandemic, it was “inconceivable” that the first blanket ban on churches remained in place and that the matter was “becoming a scandal”.
“The question begins to arise that even if the government had the moral duty to close churches in the first place, which I think I would dispute, it no longer has legitimacy in the present circumstances when we know the virus is less dangerous than we thought and all reasonable protection can be offered, as it has been offered in the retail sector.”
The letter echoed calls over the weekend from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, to reopen churches.
Heading the signatories is the Rev Ade Omooba, who co-chairs the National Church Leaders Forum — A Black Christian Voice. He praised the government for its efforts in handling the Covid-19 outbreak, but called for greater dialogue between political and religious leaders in easing the lockdown restrictions.
“We wrote the letter to state the different points of view that we have. You can’t just listen to the established church and think they speak for all churches,” he said. “The ideal outcome is for the government to do what it has done with every other sector by having the right conversations. We want dialogue with the government about the reasons why we are unhappy and we offered solutions as well.”
Open doors would not mean a return to pre-coronavirus normality, he added. “It has to be phased, just like any other sector where lockdown measures have been eased by the government. We are no different — the church is going to do the same.”
A new opinion poll suggests that half of British adults (49 per cent) believe places of worship should open sooner than next month, providing social distancing can be guaranteed. The findings, from an opinion poll by Savanta ComRes for the National Churches Trust, are higher for the churchgoing public who are two thirds (66 per cent) in favour of an earlier return.
Responding to the letter, a government spokesman told the Religion Media Centre: “We understand how difficult it is for people of faith not to be able to congregate in their places of worship. That’s why we are working in partnership with faith leaders, through our taskforce, to develop guidance that will enable the phased and safe reopening of places of worship.
“Protecting the health and safety of the British public remains our No 1 priority and we will issue the guidance as soon as it’s sensible to do so, ensuring that places of worship have sufficient time to put measures in place to welcome worshippers back safely.”
In a separate development, the United Synagogue has issued extensive guidance on a phased process of reopening that it expects will take place “over the course of many months”. The 12-page document issued to its 60 communities aims to outline some of the planned measures, which look set to include face coverings, a booking system for attendance and a ban on young children and those deemed medically vulnerable.
An accompanying letter states: “The last few months have been painful. We may still be a few weeks away from opening our doors but we hope that simply starting to plan for a return will, please God, bring encouragement to you and your members.”
The move has some support in parliament. Tracey Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, who resigned as sports minister in 2018 over promised legislation on fixed-odds betting terminals was delayed, is urging Boris Johnson to reopen churches as soon as possible.
She writes in The Times today: “. . . One cannot go and pray in a place of worship until 4 July, whereas from the middle of June I can go into a bookmaker and pray that my pick in the 3.30 comes in.”