English religious leaders: Ban on public worship is without scientific basis
CNA Staff, Nov 4, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Leaders of English religious communities, including Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, wrote to the prime minister Tuesday challenging a ban on public worship as having ‘no scientific justification’.
“We have demonstrated, by our action, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from Covid transmission. Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship,” read the Nov. 3 letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
They added that “the scientific evidence shows that social solidarity and connectedness are key to people maintaining motivation to comply with COVID secure measures and to maintain good mental health. And there is good scientific evidence of the importance of faith and faith communities for positive mental health and coping, especially for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people.”
Members of parliament approved Nov. 4 a four-week lockdown in England that will begin Nov. 5, following a surge in coronavirus cases. During the lockdown, places of worship will be allowed to open only for individual prayer, aside from funerals, which 30 people may attend.
The letter protesting the ban on public worship was also signed by Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and other Anglican leaders, as well as representatives of Pentecostal Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu communities.
The religious leaders wrote that they “have been acutely aware of the tragic consequences for people everywhere and of the intractable dilemmas which the government has had to negotiate. Our thoughts and prayers have been with the Cabinet, Parliament and all who advise them, and above all with those who have died or are bereaved, unemployed or unbearably stressed by the virus and its consequences.”
They noted they have worked with the cabinet closely for the last six months to implement safety measures for public worship.
“We understand entirely that the country faces significant challenges and the reasons behind the Government’s decision to bring in new measures. But we strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time. We have had reaffirmed, through the bitter experience of the last six months, the critical role that faith plays in moments of tremendous crisis, and we believe public worship is essential.”
The religious leaders noted that their communities have been and will continue to be “central to the pandemic response,” citing foodbanks and volunteering to promote social cohesion and mental health.
“But common worship is constitutive of our identity, and essential for our self-understanding,” they wrote. “Without the worshipping community, our social action and support cannot be energised and sustained indefinitely.”
They emphasized the importance of common worship in sustaining the wellbeing of religious persons who care for others, and said that therefore “public worship is essential, should be classed by government as necessary and supported to continue. It enables and sustains people of faith in contributing to the service and health of our nation.”
Turning to social cohesion, the religious leaders said that “Increasing social scientific evidence makes clear that social connectedness, solidarity and social cohesion are key to both enabling people to stay resilient throughout restrictions due to Covid-19 and central to compliance with the behaviours we need them to adopt to reduce transmission. This has been attested to in papers from Government’s own Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies.”
“We also know that faith communities are creators of such connectedness and cohesion and their public presence and witness helps engender this. Given the importance of solidarity and connectedness, and the importance of public presence, we believe public worship should be classed as essential, and supported to continue.”
They said common worship is important for mental health, noting that “the burden of psychological and physical ill-health from isolation and during the pandemic are increasingly well understood … Public Health England’s own review found that faith communities were an important connect for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people during this period.”
Religious communities said they have found people turning to them to cope with trauma and grief “during COVID and especially since communal worship restarted. People are turning to faith communities, not just in our social care services but during public worship, as a way of coping with their sense of trauma, grief and loss.”
“The public mental health impact of this has been significant, and it provides an important way of supporting the nation without overburdening NHS and other mental health services. Public Worship provides an important sign that faith communities are there for people. We believe this must be regarded by government as essential,” they continued.
The leaders also discussed public worship as a sign of hope and normality amid “restrictions and major change and disruption to their lives … From a social psychological perspective, faith communities who consistently embody behaviours and attitudes that are covid-19 safe and hopeful provide encouragement to others through modelling these behaviours and attitudes. They are part of the journey to recovery. Public worship is therefore an essential sign that we can find new ways of living with Covid-19 until the vaccine is found, and part of the psychological and social cohesion needed to exit restriction measures.”
“We have already said there is no scientific rationale for suspension of Public Worship where it is compliant with the guidance that we have worked jointly with government to establish. We believe government, and Public Health England, accept this,” they concluded.
“Government is making decisions about what aspects of our life during this period of restrictions are essential. We believe we have demonstrated that continuation of public worship is essential, for all the reasons we have set out above. We call on government to recognise and support this, and enable us to continue to worship safely, as part of the essential fabric of the nation.”
The House of Commons elected to accept the government’s lockdown proposal by a vote of 516 to 38. Those voting against the measure were 32 Conservatives, four members of the Democratic Unionist Party, and an independent. Abstaining from the vote were 21 Conservatives and nine members of the Labour Party.
In addition to houses of worship, bars, gyms, and non-essential shops will be closed until Dec. 2 under the regulations. Schools will remain open.
A number of Conservatives voting against the lockdown were members of the 1922 Committee, including its chair, Graham Brady.
Brady had been written to by Fr. Robert Dykes, one of his constituents, who urged that public worship be allowed. The priest said that “For older parishioners, daily or weekly Mass can be the one part of the day or week that they meet other people in a place that provides comfort and safety. This has been a lifeline to so many who have struggled with isolation during months of lockdown.” He noted the measures which have been taken to ensure safe gatherings for worship.
Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, voted in favor of the lockdown. He is president of the Catholic Union, and had proposed a compromise in which the government would permit religious services as long as those attending applied online beforehand. While he voted aye, he tweeted Nov. 4 that “Freedom of worship is a fundamental human right, and the PM personally assured me today that we will get communal worship back ‘soon’.”
David Alton, Baron Alton of Liverpool, spoke Nov. 3 against the lockdown restrictions on houses of worship in the House of Lords.
“Is there not a grave danger that, in our increasingly secular society, too little account is taken of people’s religious sensibilities, when millions of people from a variety of faiths live in this country? Do we not underestimate the importance of people’s sacramental and spiritual needs, denial of which not only threatens the principle of religious freedom but jeopardises people’s personal well-being?” he asked. “What other European countries have taken such draconian powers? Is Angela Merkel not right in saying that, as a matter of principle, she could not justify such infringements of private and personal rights as well as communal needs while keeping open schools and nurseries?”
Stephen Greenhalgh, Baron Greenhalgh, who is Minister of State for Building Safety and Communities, responded that “Lord Alton makes a very important point. We should look to international comparisons to understand how places of worship have played a part in the spiritual well-being of people while not accelerating the virus. We need the data on that and as soon as it is available in this country it will be published at the earliest opportunity; I have committed to that. I will write to him about international comparisons.”
A legal challenge to the ban on public worship is being prepared by a group of at least 70 Christian leaders, citing religious liberty provisions in common law and statutory law.
Matthew Roberts, a Presbyterian minister who is represented in the complaint, said that “For a nation which is trying to preserve life to ban people from worshipping, hearing from and praying to the one who gives life and restores life is folly of the highest order. It also overturns centuries of the laws, values and traditions of the whole of the UK.”
Numerous English bishops have written against the restrictions on houses of worship in the new lockdown.
Public worship will continue in Scotland after Nov. 5, but is suspended in Wales until Nov. 9. In Northern Ireland, places of worship are open; attendees must wear face coverings when entering and exiting.
In the US, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois wrote in September that months-long lockdowns in response to the coronavirus are an extraordinary means of saving life, and are therefore not morally obligatory and should not be coerced by the state.
“[I]n the face of a pandemic, do we have a moral obligation to shut down our society, require people to stay at home, put employees out of work, send businesses into bankruptcy, impair the food supply chain, and prevent worshippers from going to church? I would say no,” the bishop concluded in an essay in the September edition of Ethics & Medics, a commentary published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
He said such actions “would be imposing unduly burdensome and extraordinary means.”