Christmas services with congregations attending church rather than having to watch online will go ahead, following the Government’s announcement today that restrictions on places of worship are to be eased.
The announcement of the new regulations by Prime Minister Boris Johnson came after a concerted campaign by church leaders, MPs and peers to have Christmas church services allowed.
On Monday afternoon the Prime Minister confirmed that there will be a return to a three-tier system of Covid control across England with some tightening as well as loosening of restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. The Government’s 60-page Covid-19 Winter Plan confirms that “collective worship….can resume, subject to social distancing” and that “Communal worship will be possible for all faiths in all three tiers and faith leaders continue to play a key role, consulting on how to make religious practice as safe as possible.”
The change of heart after many weeks of a second lockdown where all church services went online and nobody could attend Mass is a success for those who lobbied to persuade the Government that worship was not only safe but also vital for people’s well-being.
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 benefited the congregation.
While the Task Force represents all faiths, its key aim – now successfully achieved – was 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. It is unlikely, though, that carols will be permitted for all the congregation to sing, given the concerns that singing can spread the coronavirus.
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.”
The Catholic Union’s head of public affairs, James Somerville-Meikle, welcomed the turnaround on services. “Allowing churches to open next month will help bring comfort and joy to people’s lives,” he said.
Among those who signed are former Conservative leader Iain Duncan-Smith, former Bishop of London Lord Chartres, and religious freedom campaigner Lord Alton.
Their call for churches to re-open referred 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.
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”.