Church leaders, MPs and peers are stepping up their campaign to have Christmas church services allowed, amid growing concern about the lockdown’s impact on church life.
The Faith Task Force last week handed a dossier of evidence to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick that argued that places of worship are Covid-secure and worship itself is vital for people’s mental well-being.
The plans for churches over Christmas are expected to be unveiled today along with details of the government's Covid winter plan at a press conference at 7pm with Boris Johnson, who is still isolating, along with Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, and Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group.
The Faith Task Force’s submission to Gove and Jenrick coincided with a cross-party plea from MPs and peers, organised by Catholic Union president, Sir Edward Leigh MP, to the Prime Minister for churches to re-open for services by Christmas.
In the letter, signed by 49 MPs and 27 peers, Sir Edward wrote: “We hope you will provide a guarantee that all people across England – regardless of where they live – will be able to go to church this Christmas. The Christmas message of hope is needed more than ever in a year that has brought dark days for so many people”.
Among those who signed are former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith, former Bishop of London Lord Chartres, and religious freedom campaigner Lord Alton.
They are calling for churches to re-open after the current lockdown measures expire on December 2, referring to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty saying that there is no evidence that places of worship spread the coronavirus.
The Faith Task Forces document also refers to places of worship having very little part to play in spread of the pandemic. The report says that since re-opening there have been just 47 incidents of infection linked to all places of worship across the UK – equivalent to a fraction of one per cent – since their re-opening after the first lockdown.
The dossier, Keeping Public Worship Safe for the Future, says that places of worship had combined their national guidelines with their own guidelines, according to different religions’ traditions. “This approach has rendered places of worship among the most covid secure places of gathering, and worship events among the most covid-secure events in England,” says the report, written by public health advisers to the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. It also argued that places of worship should be open because they are good for social cohesion and for mental well-being.
While the Task Force represents all faiths, its key issue now is getting churches open with Christmas looming. Services on December 24 and 25 as well as Advent carol services are the most popular of the year although congregation numbers would have social distancing restrictions. Churches of all denominations are currently open for private prayer but there are services online.
The letter from MPs and peers stressed that they all wanted the infection rates brought down but other issues were also at stake. “It’s essential that measures to control the virus are based on evidence and respect people’s fundamental freedoms, including the right to worship in accordance with their beliefs.”
The Task Force document also stressed the role that places of worship play in society: “Places of Worship are community settings where friends, family and community gather. They are much more than just ‘Places of Worship’, whether for private or communal prayer. They are the fabric that knot communities together and we must not underplay their significance both in practice and symbolically for the faith communities they serve.”
The Catholic Union’s head of public affairs, James Somerville-Meikle, commented: “This week is a huge test of whether the Government understands the importance of faith to people’s lives and is prepared to reflect that in policy. We’re not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing.”
Meanwhile, a group of church leaders has launched a claim for judicial review of the English and Welsh government’s unprecedented decisions to close churches during lockdown. The 122 church leaders from different traditions are pursuing legal action against the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care claiming that the decision to ban worship services during the current lockdown is unlawful. The leaders will also challenge the Welsh Assembly’s decision to close churches during its three week firebreak which ended on November 9, but which could be in place again in the New Year.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the leaders are seeking permission for judicial review on the grounds that government restrictions on public worship breach Article 9 rights, including the freedom of Christians to manifest their religion or beliefs in communal worship, teaching, practice and observance.