The UK government have allowed church buildings to open up for supervised individual prayer for the first time since they closed their doors on March 24. Meanwhile, many church leaders are saying it is completely unacceptable that churches are considered to be non-essential. This comes as further restrictions are lifted by the UK government, allowing shops and non-essential venues to reopen. But churches are only allowed to open for “private prayer” only.
Church leaders are shocked, and they find it outrageous. Rev Ade Omooba, the co-founder of Christian Concern, said: “If churches can’t meet, they cease to exist.” As a result, Rev Omooba and a group of 25 church leaders wrote and sent a pre-action letter to the government, urging them 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, and they 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.
Senior Pastor, Cornerstone.
Bishop Lovel Bent,
Presiding Bishop, Connections Trust.
Pastor Sunday Okenwa,
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
Bishop Alfred Williams,
Presiding Bishop, Christ Faith Tabernacle
Senior Pastor, Worldwide Mission
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 reopening for its normal duties.
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 that 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 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 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 April 7. 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 the gathering of 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.
The 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.