SENIOR church leaders were not consulted about the suspension of public worship, which was announced on Sunday as part of a second national lockdown which comes into force on Thursday. They were due to meet the Government on Monday to seek an explanation for “why certain exemptions were made and not others”.
In an ad clerum sent to C of E clergy on Monday, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London write that they are grateful that churches will be allowed to remain open for private prayer and online broadcasts.
“We were cautious about these issues during the first lockdown — perhaps overly so — but in this second lockdown we want to encourage church buildings to remain open for private prayer wherever possible, making sure that their buildings are Covid-secure in the ways that we have learned in recent months, and to broadcast services from their church buildings.”
They continue: “However, worship online still means that the people of God do not have access to the sacraments which are so central to our life in Christ. This is a huge loss and since we were not consulted about the lockdown provisions, we fully intend to speak with Government about why certain exemptions are made and not others, emphasising the critical role that churches play in every community.
“The sacramental life of the Church cannot be seen as an optional extra. Nor can we separate out our worship from our service, it is always both and not either or.”
The Archbishops and Bishop Mullally, write, however, that they will “abide by the law and ask you to do the same”.
They go on “to call upon the Church of England to make this month of lockdown a month of prayer. . . During the first lockdown we cheered for the NHS every Thursday. During this second lockdown we invite you to fast in a way appropriate to you as well as pray for our nation every Thursday, for its leaders, its health and essential services and all those who suffer.”
The Catholic campaigning group Forward in Faith said on Sunday that public worship was recognised by the European Convention on Human Rights as a manifestation of the right to freedom of religion, which should only be restricted in the interests of public safety and health. “As yet, the Government has shown no evidence which would justify banning public worship on these grounds, and has ignored the profoundly harmful impact on the mental and spiritual welfare of many which such a ban would provoke.”
It was among a number of groups and individuals calling on the Government “to produce evidence which would justify the banning of public worship”. If such evidence were not forthcoming, Lords Spiritual and other members of both Houses of Parliament should “defend the right to worship freely when the draft legislation is placed before them later this week”.
The President and Vice-President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Most Revd Malcolm McMahon, also challenged the Government “to produce . . . evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship”.
They said on Sunday that the “vital charitable activities” carried out by faith communities during the pandemic had been “created and sustained by communal worship and prayer. . .
“Part of this selfless giving has been a strong ethic of responsibility in the way in which we have reopened our churches so that essential worship has been enabled. Our communities have done a great deal to make our churches safe places in which all have been able to gather in supervised and disciplined ways.
“It is thus a source of deep anguish now that the Government is requiring, once again, the cessation of public communal worship. Whilst we understand the many difficult decisions facing the Government, we have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combatting the virus. We ask the Government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship.”
The Conservative MP Sara Britcliffe asked the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on Monday for “some clarification on the rationale for . . . restrictions on places of worship”, especially since so many of her constituents had worked hard to ensure that they were Covid-secure.
Mr Johnson replied: “The rationale is very simple: it is to reduce the overall spread of the virus and get the R down below 1. That is the rationale.”