A letter sent to the government on behalf of a group of 25 church leaders urges the government to reconsider its approach to the blanket lockdown of churches. The pre-action letter, supported by Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, argues that lockdown restrictions imposed on churches are both unlawful and unnecessary, and asks the government to reprioritise the opening of churches as soon as possible.
The church leaders who are parties to the letter represent some of the largest, fastest-growing and most diverse churches in the UK. These include:
Rev Ade Omooba MBE and Dr David Muir, Co-Chairs of the National Church Leaders Forum, A Black Christian Voice;
Rev. David Hathaway, President, Eurovision Mission to Europe;
Revd Dr Brad Norman, Salvation For The Nations Intl. Churches
Chris Demetriou, Senior Pastor, Cornerstone
Bishop Lovel Bent, Presiding Bishop, Connections Trust
Pastor Sunday Okenwa, Regional Overseer, Deeper Christian Life Ministry
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, President, Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue
Canon Yaqub Masih MBE, Secretary General, UK Asian Christians; Secretary General & Founder, New Horizons
Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, Senior Pastor, Kingsway International Christian Centre
Bishop Alfred Williams, Presiding Bishop, Christ Faith Tabernacle International Churches
Dennis Greenidge, Senior Pastor, Worldwide Mission Fellowship.
The letter seeks urgent dialogue with the government on the lockdown restrictions, but warns that if the government fails to address the matter, the group may seek judicial review of the ban on churches opening.
Key to the argument of the letter is church autonomy. The letter argues that church autonomy is well-established in English law, stretching as far back as Magna Carta. The principle of church autonomy is also protected in the European Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9.
The letter states:
“There is no precedent for state legislation which in any manner limits and/or criminalises church services or sacraments.”
This principle of church autonomy is a vital constitutional freedom which strikes at the heart of the important principle of the independence of church and state. The state should not dictate church practice, and neither should the church dictate state practice, though both can and should advise and talk to each other about their ministries. Different churches will take different approaches to the coronavirus crisis. Some will want to protect vulnerable members and avoid meeting in person. Others will be keen to allow private prayer, personal prayer ministry, or even worship services with appropriate social distancing and cleaning to minimise the risks. The point is that the government should not dictate with blanket restrictions on all forms of inter-personal church ministry.
It is absolutely shocking and disturbing that gathered church ministry is currently criminalised here in the UK. In France, the supreme court recently ruled that a blanket ban on meetings at places of worship was “manifestly illegal.” In Florida, church services were ruled to be an “essential activity” as far back as 7 April. In Ontario, Canada, over 400 churches have signed a letter which complains about church ministry being restricted. The Ontario letter states:
“As Christians, we do not fear death because of the resurrection hope that is ours through Christ, but we deeply desire to show love to all people. That said, never in 1500 years of Western history has the Church of Jesus Christ not met for Easter or missed months of worship and ministry – even in times of war or plague far more devastating than COVID-19. Never before has the church been denied the opportunity to be with the sick in the hour of their death. Never before has the church ceased to celebrate the sacraments, pray together, offer counsel to the afflicted, visit the prisoner, officiate weddings and funerals, or fellowship together. The inhumanity of abandoning people in their deepest hour of grief or need is gut-wrenching for followers of Christ.”
Churches are an essential service
The government has deprioritised church ministry during the lockdown. Some ‘essential’ services have been allowed to open throughout. These include off-licences, bicycle shops, and DIY homeware shops. The government’s published plan to exit the lockdown, Our Plan to Rebuild, published on 11 May, fails to mention ‘church’ even once. Places of worship are relegated to amongst the very last services to be allowed to open, alongside cinemas and pubs.
Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, one of the claimants in the letter, said:
“It cannot be right that at present it is lawful to go to a bike shop, B&Q, visit a chiropractor or dry cleaner, and not be allowed to receive Holy Communion or engage in silent prayer in a church. Churches have traditionally been at the centre of the communities, able to offer counsel, prayer and comfort at times of national crisis. They are at the heart of our communities helping to combat mental health problems, addictions, risk of suicide, domestic violence, poverty and risk.
“Churches deliver an essential service to the community. The government should not be putting churches as the lowest priority services for re-opening from the lockdown. We look forward to the response from the government to this letter and hope that we can engage with the government to see church ministry prioritised as we start to exit the lockdown.”
Rev. David Hathaway, another claimant, said:
“The government has failed to recognise the centrality of faith to a Christian’s life. Sunday worship and access to church buildings has been treated like a mere hobby or pastime rather than foundational to national and Christian life.”
Never before in previous generations and previous crisis has gathered church ministry been banned. In times of crisis we need inter-personal church ministry more than ever before. People flocked to national days of prayer in churches across the land during world war two, for example.
Church is more than a podcast
People are seeking God in this coronavirus crisis. It is great that many churches have moved to offer online services and are often reporting greater views online than were attending in person ahead of the lockdown. I hope that churches learn from this and continue their online presence after lockdown ends. Surely that is part of what God has wanted to teach churches through this crisis.
A recent survey in the US however, found that nearly half of churchgoers said they hadn’t watched any online service in the past 4 weeks. Among those who have, only 40% said they’ve been watching services from their regular home church. Then there are those without online access who are completely unable to access church ministry during this time.
A recent article by Danny Webster of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) claimed that Churches are not rushing to reopen their doors. Sadly, this is likely to reflect what the EA has been saying to the government on this subject. The vital importance of church autonomy has somehow been lost. Joe Boot has written a very thorough response to this flawed perspective on church ministry. Should the Church really be content to be regarded as amongst the least important services in the country? Content to see church ministry criminalised for the first time in the UK? We thank God for the ability to connect online, but that is no substitute for personal ministry to those in need. Churches are indeed much more than just buildings, but buildings serve an important function in church ministry.
This nation used to unashamedly turn to God in prayer. Both in times of crisis, and in times of thankfulness. Church worship has been, and very often still is, central to national and community life. But not now. The blanket ban on church ministry has revealed the extent to which we have turned our backs on God.
We need to pray for the government to listen to what is being said in this letter. Church ministry is vital and important, and should not be restricted by secular government in this way. Churches should have autonomy and take responsibility for their own ministry. Church ministry should never be criminalised. We thank God for the leaders who have supported this initiative and pray for a change of heart from the government in this matter.