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Why I Signed an open Letter Asking the Government not to Close Churches Again

This weeks Christian Today article reflects on the letter sent by over 750 church leaders to the governments.  I understand this letter will be in The Sunday Times tomorrow.   I repeat what I say at the beginning of this article – not every Christian leader will feel free to sign this – that does not make them any less of a leader, or those who sign it any more faithful.  Let each be persuaded in their own mind!

Why I signed an open letter asking the Government not to close churches again

(Photo: Unsplash/Ricardo Frantz)

Over 700 church leaders from a wide variety of denominations and organisations have sent a joint letter to Boris Johnson and First Ministers of the devolved governments. There are doubtless many more who would sign and others who cannot in all conscience sign it, either because they don’t agree with something in it, or because they do not want to be political.

I don’t think this should be made a matter of Christian orthodoxy and hope that we will not fall into the social media trap of allowing different political perspectives to divide us. I won’t be disfellowshipping, blocking or unfriending anyone who disagrees with me on this – I can’t afford to lose any more friends! The way that Christians disagree about this should be an example to the world.

This is the letter that was sent:

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore, we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whether the UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society – physically and spiritually – than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting those who truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

To state the obvious, I signed this because I agree with it. I’m encouraged that the letter evidences both church unity and engagement with the culture on key current issues in our society. It also addresses key issues of concern.

It rightly recognizes the role of government in seeking to protect its citizens and stresses the willingness of the churches to be co-operative in attaining that goal. It avoids the party political, conspiracy theories and the blame game.

It advocates for the poor. The restrictions that are being imposed by governments have a disproportionate effect on the poor. To be confined to your home is a lot easier if that home is a house in a nice area, with a garden and if your job is a regular one paid for by the government. Lockdown is much harder if you live in a council flat and are part of the gig economy.

It recognizes that the virus cannot be cured or totally dealt with by governments and that attempts to do so may result in the cure causing more harm than the disease. The damage to the social fabric, economy, and health of the nation caused by lockdown may be many times worse than the damage caused by Covid.

To take just one example: when I was at university, I served on the welfare committee. I recall one year when nine students committed suicide. I thought of this on hearing the news that many students in Scotland are facing a strong lockdown – banned from going to pubs, from visiting others and even banned from visiting their homes. I wonder how much harm this will do to the mental health of our students? The politicians are desperately hoping that a safe and effective vaccine will be found soon. The church, of all groups, should recognize that we live in a broken world which no political system, or human endeavour can heal.

The letter recognizes the importance of public worship, not just for the Lord’s people, but also for the wider health of the nation. It seems to me that many church leaders are afraid that their church will be the one where a Covid-19 cluster breaks out and that this will result in bad publicity. That is understandable, but it should not be our primary concern. It’s not just politicians who are risk averse.

The letter expresses a right concern that the precedent of governments telling us when, how and whether we can worship in public, could result in a curtailment of religious liberty in the future. Churches in general are mature and considerate people who will take all the necessary precautions – without needing to be dictated to by governments.

While there may be rare occasions where, for a short time, the Government can close churches (as for example when we were ordered to close to ‘save the NHS’), a long-term closure will do a great deal of harm, and churches should not be used in this way.

The letter looks to the eternal. I am deeply concerned that people may get Covid-19 and may die. I would never want either myself or any group I was part of to be a transmitter of that dreadful disease. But I also remember the words of Jesus, that we are to fear him who has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell, rather than just the one who has the power to destroy the body (Matthew 10:28).

We may not have the vaccine to stop Covid, but we do have the bread of life to offer hope and bring salvation. Yes, of course it is possible for us to offer that online, but not being able to gather together and offer hope in community is a major hinderance to our work. We should be free to meet together, taking the appropriate precautions.

Much of our secular society considers the Church to be either a quaint relic from the past, or the equivalent of a line dancing club in the present. We are an optional extra in today’s society. This letter sees us as being at the very heart of a healthy society. I agree and that’s why I signed it.

To sign the letter visit https://ministersletter.wordpress.com/

After writing this I read the following in Sibbes:  “If it were not for the gathering of the church, God would take little care for the commonwealths.”

The PC (Post-Covid) Church – Evangelicals Now

13 comments

  1. Thank you for signing this letter . I have long struggled with the Church closing its doors just as people were hurting and needing to be pointed to Almighty God. Even now many (my own included) are only available online to a password protected bubble. I have become acutely aware of the impact of isolation on those who live alone – outwardly strong, independent types of my mother’s generation (80+) who have stoically borne the cancellation of everything that gave colour and meaning to life because they don’t want to risk spreading the virus to their friends, but have begun to admit how difficult it has been and are dismayed at the prospect of further lockdown. I was widowed young and have seen couples enthusing about having time together and all they have achieved over the summer, but haven’t met a single person living alone who would agree; normal support networks disintegrated and so many jobs require a second pair of hands (or extra motivation) and remain undone. Having visited my mother for the first time in six months and attended her (carefully distanced) Church, I realised the importance of human contact as part of worship; zoom was great as a stop gap, but it does seem that for many it is becoming a ‘safe’ long term solution. Currently I can go to the pub, place a bet at the Bookies and even swim in the local pool, but I may not slip into my Church to pray, even alone and this troubles me greatly, as does the fact that I am in a minority for saying so!

  2. Most churches HAVE been reasonable, but some in the US and S Korea have not. The press will have a field day if an outbreak is traced back to a truculent church pastor standing up for their rights. It however does tend to light up the ‘God lives in the building’ brigage. Spoiler (he doesn’t!).

    See also
    https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3565?ijkey=fbd6427be638a2f124100cd84948e63587452705&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/26/i-used-to-be-ms-covid-casual-but-with-a-sick-sister-thats-changed

    1. You have not offered any proper critique nor any understanding of the spread of the virus, Andrew, just indignation.
      Is the law, is the political judgement, decisions beyond critique, particularly in the light of the scientific or epidemiological dissensions.
      Your examples of misuse of meeting together and not arguments for non use, but a strong argument for correct use. Yours, is a straw man argument.
      Why not put a stop to supermarket shopping in person? After all it is Sunday worship for many.
      If you want a clear minded article, by someone who has also signed look to this:
      “How should Christians respond to a new lockdown”
      https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/how-should-christians-respond-to-a-new-lockdown/

  3. I thank God for this letter and all the signatories. It is timely and it is necessary. The reality of growing government over-reach in so many areas of life needs to be discussed, evaluated, and tweaked/curtailed. I believe this pandemic has highlighted this issue, which has been a concern of mine for sometime.

    1. Sorry Stephen this is not a helpful reply at all. You signed your name to the letter not to every comment made by any of the 800 signatories. It is also not helpful and indeed slanderous to suggest that the framers of the letter ‘duped’ people. I would suggest you apologise.

      1. Stephen Kneale,
        Are you really subscribing to guilt by association? Again, misuse is not an argument for no use, but for correct use? Or does perception outweigh reality?
        I suspect you may think it may make it more difficult to do your job, rather than provide an opportunity to share the Good News of Christ. But I may be well wide of the Mark.
        As you know, a person from a group, does not speak for a group, unless invested with that authority by that group. You have an opportunity to explains to anyone who asks you to explain that you agree with what has been written without but not the subsequent comments.
        How many people do you think took notice both of the letter, the subsequent comments, the list of signatories, are Times readers, are part of your church local demographics.
        How do you respond to those misrepresent the Gospel, or have a wrong but common perception of Christianity put propounded by liberals? By denouncing liberal theology to those who may have no idea what it is, or by presenting the Good News of Jesus and offering Christ?

  4. A lot of nominal christianity is about attending on Sundays and “paying in” (yearly or weekly). Convinced and committed believers will pray and study the bible alone. They will interact by phone, or email, or informal garden type meetings with fellow believers. They will come to minimal spiritual harm from the door of the church building remaining closed to them. I think the churches might set a good example, by maintaining a small witness on Sundays, using the smallest number of low risk people to hand, and having them stay distanced. Many mainstream church attenders have no real belief in answered prayer, if you ask them about this specifically. A god of deism, humoured by good works, and payments to the church, is the name of their game at times. I would like to see churches place a higher value on human life, and think cleverly through how to maintain a smaller Sunday witness, without exposing people to risk of a serious illness. Could we do worse than hand worship and attendance to the under 45’s who have no work or social contacts with older people? There is a lack of imagination, and just carrying on business as normal, with masks and hand gel, is not the answer.

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