AFTER several months of “following” the science, it was inevitable that politicians would revert to type and allow politics and economics to creep to the fore once again. From mid-summer, the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies has been questioned and ignored — until the rise became too serious to be discounted. The new national lockdown was (once again) being “driven” by the science, the Prime Minister announced at the weekend. This makes all the more paradoxical the suppression of public worship — announced as if it was an afterthought on Saturday. As the faith leaders pointed out in their letter on Tuesday, there is no scientific justification for the move. Were stopping the transmission of the coronavirus the only objective, it is clear that schools and universities should be closed, since it is among these age groups that the highest rates of infection are found. In contrast, the Government has cited no instances of a significant outbreak linked to any place of worship that has been observing the guidelines.
Setting aside science, as the Government has in this instance, the argument shifts to a consideration of what is “necessary”. The Church of England’s case was undoubtedly weakened by its capitulation in March. Instead of arguing for a short closure to make church buildings Covid-secure, the basics of which were apparent very early on in the pandemic, the Bishops expressed a Blitz-spirit bravado, maintaining that, since God was not confined to a building, God’s followers need not be, either. However true this might be, two props to the present argument were undermined: the importance of communal worship in the life of the Church, and the Church in the life of the nation. As a consequence, the Government can be forgiven for assuming that the Church would go along with its plans. It did not even think to ask first.
But this is not March. The Church has learnt much, besides the correct use of masks and hand-sanitiser. Digital worship has been found to work well for many people, and adequately for many more. But a significant number struggle without regular contact with the liturgy and with each other, and some fall away altogether. All are diminished by the loss of the eucharist. The parallel with schools is clear; yet while the mental health of the young and their need to function communally is recognised as “necessary”, and worth the risk of transmission among pupils, staff, and parents, the same necessity among worshippers is simply not acknowledged.
And behind this is an incomprehension of what worshippers are doing. Despite the references to mental health, worshippers don’t attend church to feel better. Past Prime Ministers have appreciated the effect of prayer in the life of the country. It is a shame that someone who carries the burden of life-or-death decisions in the face of this pandemic fails to grasp this.