THE first time that a government prevented my attending corporate worship in a church was in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2008. The last time that this happened was on Exmoor, Somerset, earlier this week, Remembrance Sunday 2020.
I was in Harare in 2008 to strengthen a partnership between the dioceses of Harare and Rochester, and to show solidarity with our beleaguered brothers and sisters. Zimbabwe was passing through a torrid time facing hyper-inflation and an economic meltdown that, as is usual, did most damage to the poorest in society.
The Anglican diocese was also traumatised by the actions of a former Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, who, with government support, was trying to enlist the diocese to support the ruling ZANU-PF party under the rule of Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe. When the diocese resisted, Anglican churches and property were taken out of its hands and clergy were evicted from their homes. Anglicans were not allowed in their own churches.
Congregations were forced to worship wherever they could: sometimes in gardens, sometime under trees, and sometimes in church halls offered by other churches. Even at these alternative venues, congregations risked being arrested and tear-gassed by police. On my visit in 2008, I was asked by the Bishop to lead the worship of the cathedral congregation. But the worship was not to be held in the beautiful sandstone cathedral in the middle of Harare, but in a marquee in a municipal park beside a swimming pool.
Before I set off for the service, the Bishop warned me of three issues that I might face. First, there would undoubtedly be secret police in the congregation; second, he had heard that a foreign undercover reporter would be present (foreign media correspondents were banned from Zimbabwe); and, finally, as regularly happened, the service might be raided and dispersed by police. In the event, the service was not raided, there were secret police present, and I was later sent a report of the service which was published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Despite the dangers faced by the congregation, they turned up in large numbers because communal worship and the eucharist were sustaining them. Those organising the worship took every precaution that all would be safe, but it was not possible to eliminate every risk, and the congregation knew it.
The Gospel set for the day was Matthew 10.16ff, in which Jesus was warning his followers that they would be beaten, dragged out of their places of worship, and brought before governors and rulers.
This situation continued for another four years until the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe gave a ruling that Anglicans should be allowed back into their churches to worship peacefully.
EXAMPLES of the prohibition of corporate worship are not confined to Zimbabwe. The Bishop of Truro’s independent review of the persecution of Christians, which was sponsored by the Foreign Secretary and reported last year (News, 12 July 2019), provides further examples of Christians’ facing arrest and harassment if they worship. In the Early Church, there were countless examples of Christians’ facing death if they gather for worship.
During the lockdown, the UK Government has again banned corporate worship (News, 6 November). They have done so without giving evidence that such a ban, with its human costs, would be an effective means of fighting the coronavirus. Permission has, quite rightly, been given for churches to be used for “essential voluntary and public services”, for private prayer, and for services to be broadcast online, but not for the services for which churches were originally built.
The Government has simply not grasped the reality that communal worship, especially the eucharist, feeds those who hunger for it just as foodbanks feed those in need. Worship is not a leisure activity, but, alongside mission, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. Indeed, worship and mission are two sides of the same coin. Worship feeds and motivates mission; mission poses penetrating questions about worship.
Depriving people of corporate worship in which the sacraments can be received is, in the words of Cardinal Nichols, the RC Archbishop of Westminster, a source of deep anguish for many. Digital technology has helped enormously by enabling Christians to worship online, but this is not accessible to all and for many is not a substitute.
The Government also does not appear to have taken into account the well-documented benefits of gathering for worship on mental and spiritual well-being. The pandemic has increased fear and panic, and lockdowns have increased loneliness. Together, they raise for many people existential questions about the meaning of life and death. Churches in general and communal worship in particular provide the space and framework to recognise, struggle with, and address these questions.
In addition, the Government is infringing the human rights of its citizens by making it illegal to gather in churches for worship. The dangerous precedent that this sets was well argued by the former Prime Minister Theresa May. She said: “My concern is that the Government today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government of the future for the worst of intentions.”
It would be unreasonable to suggest that the Government is deliberately setting out to undermine people’s human rights, even though that is what it is doing, but the ramifications of its action are chilling.
SO, WHAT is to be done? I am hopeful that, in the regular discussions between Church and Government about lockdown, the reasons behind the Government’s ban on communal worship in churches is being vigorously explored. I hope, too, that these discussions are taking place with politicians who can make decisions about the ban. If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, then we should learn from the diocese of Harare and explore the issue in the courts.
Many Christians, both living and departed, have faced harassment and even death to gain the right to worship together and, in this way, have witnessed to their faith. How are we witnessing to our faith when this right has been removed from us?
The Rt Revd Dr Brian Castle is an Assistant Bishop in Bath & Wells diocese and an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter. His book Reconciliation: The journey of a lifetime is published by SPCK.