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Empty church, is the church being treated unfairly by Boris Johnson?

Although the vast majority of churches (along with most of society) have remained compliant with Covid-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic, there are signs of frustration within some church circles who suggest the church is being treated unfairly as restrictions are eased.

On the extreme end of the spectrum (in the US), a number of churches have sought litigation against local authorities citing breaches of ‘freedom of religion’ and protesting that the ‘government does not get to dictate the method of worship of the faithful’.

Fortunately, we are not aware of this provocative approach in the UK. However, there are indications that churches this side of the pond are considering some form of protest against Boris Johnson’s government. The Bishop of Shrewsbury has said it is ‘regrettable’ that churches in England must wait until July before reopening. He feels the church is being relegated to some kind of leisure activity. Furthermore, a petition is being circulated urging the government to ‘prioritise the faith-based community, and protect the rights of worshipers and service attendees.’ The petition alleges that worshippers are being ‘treated like second-class citizens of lesser importance and intelligence, whose needs are at the bottom of the pile’.

So, is Boris Johnson treating the church unfairly? Is it fair to compare the opening of garden centres and DIY outlets with church attendance? Are Christians being treated like ‘second-class’ citizens?

It is certainly true that the 50-page document outlining government advice last week was very quiet concerning places of worship with only one brief mention. This is a concern considering the vital and powerful role played by faith-based communities within society – even more so during times of difficulty when people are more likely to seek spiritual guidance. The church is clearly not much of a priority in the mind of Boris Johnson. Furthermore, we are confident that churches could set-up sensible distancing measures and operate a safe environment for worshippers if they were permitted to open.

However, does this mean Boris Johnson is treating the church unfairly?

We do not feel that is the case at the present time. We are also concerned that this approach could be counter-productive as it isn’t wise to play the victim without very good reason. It is also a good time to consider many communities of genuinely persecuted Christians around the world who live in a permanent state of ‘lockdown’ in conditions that we can’t possibly imagine.

So, why do we feel the government approach towards places of worship is justifiable at the current time?

Firstly, a large proportion of the church community will consist of those in higher-risk categories. This group has been specifically advised by the government to take particular care to minimize contact with those outside their household. This is backed up by medical advice (which also suggests that activities such as singing can increase the risk slightly!). Therefore, it would be risky (and arguably irresponsible) to invite this demographic back to church so early in the phased easing of restrictions.

Secondly, as we’ve pointed out before, the church is not being singled out for more harsh restrictions than anyone any section of society. Although it is true that some trades have been given a ‘headstart’ by the government, these are almost exclusively those that either directly or indirectly lead to an outdoor activity which is a key feature of the initial ease of restrictions. This could not apply to typical church participation. Even gyms and leisure centres are also having to wait until 4th July. In these circumstances, we do not believe there is any justification for protest. Given the nature of church operation, we feel the government time-scale for the opening of ‘places of worship’ is reasonable and seems to be in balance with the general ease of restrictions across society as a whole.

Thirdly, unlike activities such as the building or gardening industry, ‘church’ can be practiced online. One of the amazing effects of the lockdown has been how much of the church has embraced internet technology (such as Zoom) to bring the church to people’s homes. It seems fair that the government prioritizes areas of society where this is not possible. Although meeting as a church is not the same online, a reasonably strong connection can still be maintained within a church using internet technology which obviously does not apply the activities that cannot take place online.

Finally, there is a subtle implication here that the physical church building is integral in the expression of our Christian faith and pivotal in our spiritual health. While the physical meeting of the Christian community is clearly an important component of practicing our faith, the church should be a body of people that are not dependant on physical church infra-structure. In fact, to a degree, the Christian community should be encouraged to be spiritually self-sufficient and certainly not reliant on professional leadership. The Christian has direct access to a living God through Jesus Christ – a dynamic and amazing relationship. Every aspect of worship that would usually take place through the physical attendance at a church service can also be practiced at home – this includes song, prayer, and communion. Furthermore, the church can produce a limitless amount of internet material to teach and equip their congregations while at home.

Again, admittedly, the full value of face-to-face meetings cannot be replicated online, but the same is true for any activity with a social dimension – why should those who attend a church building be any different when the whole country is having to adhere to restrictions that limit social interaction?

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, (1 Timothy 2:5 NIV)

We stress that we are not saying the physical church has no value. Face-to-face contact is obviously ideal – it cultivates relationships and plays an important role in spiritual health. When restrictions are lifted across the country, we will heartily encourage Christians to attend church again. However, the mainstream church should not request special privileges from our secular government and should not ‘jump the queue’ as restrictions are eased.

So, is the church being treated unfairly at the present time? We would say no.

If the church were being singled out for real persecution or if the church were being asked to do something that specifically compromises the Christian faith, we would feel differently. However, the government appears to be handling this crisis as well as could have been expected under impossible circumstances. A much better witness would be achieved by adopting a submissive and patient approach and supporting our authorities as they navigate the nation through the ease of the lockdown.

We long for the time when followers of Jesus can meet as normal. Until then, may God bless our leaders and give them wisdom needed to guide us through this testing season.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2 NIV)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:12-14 NIV)

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