Over 1,000 church leaders have called on the Government to reverse its decision to close church services during the second lockdown.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister announced the new restrictions would run from 5 November to 2 December – preventing churches from opening for public worship for four weeks.
The ministers and leaders wrote a letter urging national leaders to reconsider the mandate forcing churches to close. Many of the signatories were among the 700 who wrote to the Government in September explaining why churches should not be asked to cease public worship again.
The letter said: “The suspension of church services during the first lockdown was something that we were willing to do, given the unknown nature and scale of the threat we were facing. Yet the costs were high.
“Our greatest concern was that for four months God was not publicly worshipped in this country. And we have all seen first-hand the deep damage that this caused to many people. Since restarting in July, church has been a vital lifeline to many who have been struggling with loneliness and other negative effects of lockdown.”
“Therefore, churches have gone to great lengths to ensure that worship need not be suspended again. Thorough Covid-secure measures have been put in place.
“As a result, attending church now presents a very low risk indeed of transmitting the virus, far lower than many of the activities which are to remain open during this next lockdown.”
‘Baffled and dismayed’
It continued: “Therefore we are baffled and dismayed to find that your government plans now to close places of worship except for private prayer, and thus to prohibit Christians from assembling to worship. We are baffled because there is, to our knowledge, no evidence of any significant contribution to community transmission through churches.
“And we are dismayed because there seems to be a failure to understand that Christian worship is an essential public service. It is essential for the mental and spiritual health of millions of Christians. It is essential for providing the nation with the hope that Jesus Christ offers. And it is essential for the glory of God.”
The letter’s authors concluded: “It is a matter of great distress to us and to Christian people that the government of the nation we love should ban us from gathering to worship the God who claims our highest loyalty; especially when this has been done with no clear reasons for why it is necessary.
“And so respectfully we ask that you would recognise the essential nature of Christian worship, and therefore amend the proposed legislation to permit churches to carry on meeting together.”
‘Very weak’ evidence
It comes as the Government’s Chief Medical Adviser and Chief Scientific Adviser have admitted that the decision to close churches in England is not based on clear evidence.
Appearing in front of the Science and Technology Committee in Westminster, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance accepted that what little data exists to support the action is “very weak”.
Asked to account for SAGE’s advice “where evidence is weak, for example on the closing of places of worship”, Sir Patrick responded: “We haven’t got good evidence on the exact value of each intervention on ‘R’.
“We produced a paper suggesting what that might be in different areas, but really said ‘Look, this is not a very exact science at all.’ And therefore I’m afraid it’s a rather blunt instrument”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has also criticised the Government for its impending ban, saying this is a “huge loss” for worshippers, and is seeking to meet with ministers to protest the new rules.
In a letter to Church of England clergy, he praised Christians around the country who had spent lockdown engaging in social action, or extending outreach and services online, but said online worship means the people of God “do not have access to the sacraments which are so central to our life in Christ”.
He continued: “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 Christian Institute called on the Government this week to explain its decision to close churches while it continues to allow universities and garden centres to remain open.
Director Colin Hart said: “This is not like the lockdown in March where everyone was in the same boat. There are now glaring inconsistencies in the way churches are being treated compared to other sectors of society.”
“For example, universities have been linked to massive outbreaks yet they will be allowed to continue as normal. Churches have complied rigorously with COVID rules and protected their congregations, yet they are being forced to close. Where is the evidence to justify this restriction on the fundamental right to worship? It will do immense damage to many people’s wellbeing and to their trust in Government.”
He added: “The spiritual needs of society are being ignored. Public worship is not an optional leisure activity. It should not be treated as such.”