THE former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has criticised strongly the suspension of public worship, saying that it will have unintended consequences.
Speaking in a debate on the new lockdown restrictions in the House of Commons on Wednesday — which went on to be overwhelmingly passed by MPs, by 516 votes to 38 — Mrs May 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.
“And it has unintended consequences. The Covid-secure Remembrance service in Worcester Cathedral is now going to be turned into a pre-recorded online service. Surely those men and women who gave down their lives for our freedom deserve better than this?”
The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, speaking in the same debate, said that the new restrictions would “have a serious impact on faith communities and places of worship. There is real concern across faiths about the lack of consultation, and I hope that the Government can urgently address that, including by convening the places-of-worship taskforce.”
Opposition to the ban on collective worship during the month-long lockdown, which began on Thursday, was expressed by numerous MPs during the debate.
The 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. For many people, it is the only outing they have in the week, and the only opportunity to have any contact with people for prayer and contemplation. In Northern Ireland, churches have been able to remain open through the use of masks and hands, face, space. Could that be looked at?”
The Prime Minister replied: “It is an awful thing to restrict people’s ability to worship in a communal way. Obviously, as he knows, we are allowing private worship, but for many people that will not be enough. The best I can say is that, in all reality, if we approve this package of measures tonight, we have a very good prospect of allowing everybody to return to communal worship in time for Christmas and other celebrations in December.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, said that he was “concerned about the lack of collective worship, and I think that churches are some of the safest places I have been in recent weeks”.
A former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, said that the absence of public worship was “potentially hugely damaging to people’s mental health and well-being”.
Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, asked: “Do the Government have the right to ban acts of collective worship? I am glad that at this point the Churches are standing up against this and objecting, because earlier in the year I thought they possibly went a little too quietly.”
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, spoke for the Government at the end of the debate, and hinted that the ban on public worship would be reviewed. “I can tell the House that ministers are talking to faith leaders to do everything we can to reach an accommodation as soon as possible,” he said. “I understand the impact of this infringement on liberties.”
The issue of public worship was also raised during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, by the Conservative MP Stuart Anderson. He asked whether the Prime Minister agreed that “places of worship should open as soon as is practically possible; and will he commend all the work that has been done to make these places Covid-secure?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I’m so, so deeply sorry that these restrictions have to be placed right now, but we will work as hard as we can and as fast as we can to make sure that we allow them to . . . worship in the way that they want from 2 December.”
In the Commons on Monday, the Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh had asked Mr Johnson to join him for daily mass at Westminster Cathedral, where he would “witness the extreme social distancing, the constant cleansing after services, and the mask-wearing — all factors taken far more seriously there than almost anywhere else”. Sir Edward asked to see “the evidence as to why there is any possibility, after all these measures, of religious services spreading Covid”.
Mr Johnson said that he was “so sorry that the faith communities temporarily must go through this difficult period of not being able to observe services in the way that they want and I would like”.
He continued: “This is only for 28 days, and the hope I can offer — the candle in the darkness — is that we will, if we get this right, be able to go back to something much more like normal life before Christmas, and people will be able to celebrate Christmas, in churches and elsewhere across this country.”
Opposition to the ban on public worship has also been voiced by members of the House of Lords.
Speaking in response to a Government statement on the new lockdown restrictions, on Tuesday, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, said: “Access to the sacraments and communal worship is essential to sustain us with much-needed hope at this time, strengthening our commitment to social action. Yet more is needed: people need to be married, not just buried.”
Bishop Dakin asked whether the “blanket ban” on public worship would be reviewed, and, if not, whether evidence would be published to justify the decision. He also sought “assurances that the Government will consult with the Churches and other faiths in advance of future decisions such as these”.
The Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Evans, replied that the Government understood the disappointment felt by faith communities, “but we are committed to ensuring that we work collectively to bring the R rate down so that, in December, we can, we hope, start to get back to normality once we have suppressed the virus.”
In a Private Notice question in the Lords on Tuesday, the Conservative Lord Moyan asked whether the Government “will now produce the evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship in places of worship”. He also sought assurances that, if the restrictions were extended beyond 2 December, “that will not happen without the Government offering some evidence for these restrictions on acts of public worship being renewed or extended”.
The Minister of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, Lord Greenhalgh, replied: “Public Health England is looking at the evidence around places of worship and proliferation of the virus. I am aware that a tremendous amount of effort has been put into ensuring that places of worship are Covid-secure.”
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth spoke of the “meticulous” safety measures that he had observed during services in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. “Will the minister give an assurance that, as soon as some evidence is available about churches’ impact, or lack of impact, on Covid-19, he will be able to report to this House?”
Lord Greenhalgh replied: “As soon as we have the specific evidence of the review by Public Health England, that will be made available to all.”
Peers continued to press the Government on the evidence, however. Lord Cormack said that the minister had “not given a single shred of evidence as to why churches should not be open for public worship”. It was “a disgrace”, he said, that a Remembrance Sunday service planned at Lincoln Cathedral would have to take place outside, forcing veterans to “stand in the cold and be rained on, but they cannot go into a safe, socially distanced cathedral”.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark pleaded with the minister “to talk to the Secretary of State and other ministerial colleagues to see what can be done to allow socially distanced worship to commence in some form as quickly as possible”.
Lord Greenhalgh said that he would be “very happy to make those representations on behalf of people of all faiths and none to ensure that the core mission of places of worship can be fulfilled at the earliest opportunity”.
Peers also spoke of the effect on people’s mental and spiritual well-being of closing places of worship for public worship.