Imran Mulla: Religious freedom – and why French assimilation fails while British multiculturalism works

10 Jan

Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.

Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.

The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’

Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.

It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.

Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.

His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.

But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.

French elites have concealed the ‘reality of our replacement’, he declares ominously in his campaign announcement address, echoing the conspiracy theory of the esoteric fascist, Renaud Camus.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).

We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.

For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.

Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.

He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.

Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.

Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.

Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).

Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.

The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.

This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.

But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.

But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.

This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.

Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.

The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?

This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.

Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.

For non-believers seeking Christmas ritual, Screwtape offers sound advice

24 Dec

In his novel The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the titular daemon recommend that a junior colleague encourage, in order to divert a potential Christian from the path of virtue, the habit of ‘church shopping’.

“The search for a ‘suitable’ church”, the elder devil advises “makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil”.

I suspect that Lewis has a point. I can certainly relate from anecdotal experience a tendency to become choosier about church the less frequently one attends. My own family only abandoned the local parish church for the smells-and-bells service in town when our churchgoing had attenuated to the status of yuletide ritual.

But whilst I can’t speak for those with faith, as a non-believer a degree of ‘church-shopping’ seems perfectly defensible. For those of us unconnected to the inner life of the service, it is precisely the outward form of it we’re there for.

Does this create a dilemma for church leaders? On the one hand, high days and holidays offer an opportunity to snare lost sheep. But doing so means shaping the service around the expectations of fleeting visitors, rather than the dwindling ranks of the regular faithful.

This tension was evident in the last few years we attended the midnight service at our local church. Lots of old faces would turn up. But the church was not as they had left it. Specifically, the musical director and choir had new songs.

Occasionally, these were great. Most of the time, they were fine. But they were known only to the regulars, not the guests. Thus instead of the uplifting experience of a room full of people joined in song, half the room were humming along to a melody they had never heard before. Eventually, more and more of them sought out alternatives; a church that played the favourites, a service where they knew the words.

I can’t blame my old church for their music. They go every week, I don’t. More to the point, they believe, and I don’t.

But I don’t feel like a trespasser at that other service. Even in an increasingly irreligious age, we live in a nation which has been profoundly shaped by Christianity. And that means that the church, and the Church of England in particular, is a depository of national ritual to which we all, believer or not, have a claim.

Those old songs, for example, and the ones my grandparents and great-grandparents sang. The words of the traditional marriage ceremony are the promises men and women have made to each other for centuries. They might not offer all of us communion with the Almighty, but that momentary sense of connection to our history is still precious. In a society gradually growing shorter on common experience and shared ritual these things are more important, not less.

So I’ll continue my idle, annual hunt for a service that suits my tastes. I don’t suppose I’ll ever become “a taster or connoisseur of churches”, but Wormwood will probably be contented with a job well done. Joyeux Noël, one and all!

Profile: The Church of England, afflicted by a central bureaucracy which is mounting a takeover bid

15 Jul

“I am indeed in an absolute fury,” my friend, a liberal Catholic priest in the Church of England, said when I rang to ask about the latest row shaking the Church.

“It’s a coup led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s an evangelical take-over. It’s having a direct impact on clergy who are not evangelical. They are being ousted.”

“It’s Putinesque – silently under the radar they’ve been moving, and at this point it’s surfaced.”

What could have provoked such an outburst? Some words by Canon John McGinley, head of church-planting development at New Wine, who explained why the Church of England is right to have adopted the astonishing target of setting up 10,000 new, mostly lay-led churches in the next ten years, with a million new members:

“Lay-led churches release the Church from key limiting factors. When you don’t need a building and a stipend and long, costly college-based training for every leader of church . . . then actually we can release new people to lead and new churches to form. It also releases the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”

This suggests that parish clergy get in the way of growth, while some of the rest of us are mere “passengers”. Stipendiary priests are a “key limiting factor”, as are their education and the buildings in which they work.

Not surprisingly, many of the clergy are furious to find themselves described in this way. They have worked through the pandemic, surmounted innumerable problems to keep their churches going, ministered to any number of people in desperate need, and received little enough support from a hierarchy which during the first lockdown assented without a murmur of protest to the closure of church buildings and the exclusion of the clergy even for the streaming of services without congregations, as if that presented any risk to public health.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, led the way by celebrating Easter 2020 from his kitchen, rather than from the perfectly good chapel in Lambeth Palace.

Here was a practical demonstration of what it was like to conduct services in one’s own home, rather than from some traditional sacred building. Parish priests also had to get used to doing this, which is now officially regarded as the way ahead, the means by which the Church will grow, with meetings of the new converts held in houses rather than churches.

The financial savings from this way of doing things should be huge, there is in any case a need because of falling membership to economise, the pandemic has presented an additional pretext for sweeping change, and in dioceses such as Chelmsford, large number of clergy are already being laid off.

Funds are already being diverted to promote the founding of new House Churches, rather than maintain the parish system.

Welby has endorsed the church-planting strategy in the most emphatic terms, telling the online conference which was addressed by Canon McGinley:

“We don’t preach morality, we plant churches. We don’t preach therapeutic care, we plant churches. We
are not deists, we believe in a God who intervenes — and plants churches.” 

He himself was converted to Christianity on 12th October 1975, while praying with a fellow undergraduate, and Old Etonian, at Trinity College, Cambridge. During summer vacations they helped run the evangelical summer camps at Iwerne Minster, in Dorset, whose founder, Bash Nash, had set out to preach the gospel at the top 30 public schools in Britain, and to recruit from these an elite cadre of future Christian leaders.

While engaged in this work, Welby met John Smyth QC, a prominent evangelical who was later found to have committed atrocious acts of abuse against more than 20 boys.

As is often the case, Welby found it difficult to apologise in a credible way to the victims, while at the same time upholding the interests of the institution he now leads.

After Cambridge Welby worked in the oil industry and on returning from Paris to London, worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a London church which from 1985-2005 underwent a celebrated revival under the leadership of Sandy Millar (Eton and Trinity), and has since been led by his successor, Nicky Gumbel (Eton and Trinity), who further developed its famous Alpha Course.

HTB became a shining example of charismatic evangelical Christianity, brilliant at converting young, friendly, sincere, well-mannered, newly arrived Londoners who were familiar with Christian observance from their private education, but had not yet undergone a conversion experience.

Here was a thriving church where it was unembarrassing, indeed the done thing, to become a committed, evangelical Christian, after which one set out to multiply the effect by making strenuous efforts to convert one’s friends. HTB was socially conservative on questions such as homosexuality, and was linked to conservative American evangelicals such as John Wimber.

From its overflowing congregation, it sent out teams under clerical leadership to rescue other London churches which had become moribund.

There was a tremendous esprit de corps in these teams, and they were successful in revitalising about seven churches. Welby, who with Millar’s help and encouragement set out on the path to ordination in 1989, had early and positive experience of church planting.

But one may note that this success was achieved by an inspiring leader, Millar, who was good at identifying and enlisting other leaders; knew how to instil confidence in them; himself preached the gospel with an engaging simplicity of manner; stayed in one place for a long time; had a similar background to the young people he was trying to reach; and while keeping the whole venture under clerical rather than lay supervision, benefited from the freedom to do things his own way.

One may wonder whether most or indeed any of those conditions will be met by the Vision and Strategy paper which was this week adopted by General Synod, to whom it was presented by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, who said he wants to see “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm”:

“In the Church of England in the 2020s this notion of mixed ecology will be the way in which we fulfil, in our day, that historic vocation to be the church for every inch of England, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (as well as to witness for Christ all across the Diocese in Europe as well) and every person therein. This is not a dismantling of the parish system. Neither is it a way of disregarding or devaluing ordained ministry.”

No bishop has challenged these soft and inclusive words, for the episcopacy had already been squared. But in other parts of the Church there is huge alarm.

Here is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, questioning the assertion that 10,000 new House Churches will gain a million new adherents by 2030:

“At their last peak in the 1980s, the House Church Movement in the UK could perhaps claim a quarter of a million adherents. The number today is probably well under 10,000, with some estimates closer to 5,000. Many of those that were so popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century dissolved when the leaders died.  Or, were subject to intense question of financial and sexual probity.  Many of these House Churches would now be classed as case-studies in spiritual abuse, the misuse of power, and safeguarding nightmares…

“I also wonder if the drivers of this new initiative – a kind of ‘ecclesial final solution’ – have really done their homework on young people.  Even amongst evangelical youth, toleration or affirmation of same-sex relationships, people of other faiths and cultural diversity, suggests that the old conversionist paradigms are not engaging emerging generations of evangelicals.  Fellowship and worship may be cherished, but the teaching is received on an à-la-carte basis.,,

“Jung Chang, in her award-winning Wild Swans  – a withering critique of Mao’s China and the doomed Great Leap Forward – offers a parable that is a cautionary tale. She writes of a time when telling fantasies to oneself as well as others, and believing them, was practised to an incredible degree. Peasants moved crops from several plots of land to one plot to show Party officials that they had produced a miracle harvest. Similar ‘Potemkin fields’ were shown off to gullible – or self-blinded – agricultural scientists, reporters, visitors from other regions, and foreigners.  Although these crops generally died within a few days because of untimely transplantation and harmful density, the visitors did not know that, or did not want to know…”

Andrew Lightbown, Rector of Winslow, points out that if created (which admittedly is hard to imagine) the 10,000 House Churches would change the whole character of the Church:

“The Church of England is a church in the reformed catholic tradition.This means that we take things like orders, sacraments, and liturgy seriously. In fact these three are central to our understanding of what it means to be a church, or Christian community; reformed and catholic. We can’t get away from this, and neither should we try to do so… if approximately half of Church England Churches / Communities are under lay leadership, and as a consequence the Sacrament of Holy Communion or Eucharist isn’t a defining characteristic of congregational life, then the whole character of the Church of England, a character that is enshrined in both canon law and the liturgy, will have changed…”

Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in London, looks forward in The Spectator to “10,000 mansion churches led by the untrained super-rich”, for who but the wealthy have houses that can accommodate 30 people?

How unselfconscious these grand yet humble evangelicals are as they put forward proposals which will only work if people can be found who are at once very rich and possess large amounts of spare time, which they will devote to the foundation of House Churches, within which there will be, according to the strategy, “a doubling in the number of children and young active disciples in the Church of England by 2030”.

Giles Fraser, Priest-in-Charge at St Mary’s Newington, in the course of a tremendous philippic for Unherd, says he has never known such anger among the clergy, objects to Canon McGinley’s use of the word “passengers”, and challenges the assumption of some evangelicals that success can be measured by the number of converts:

“the Church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it. Indeed, the Bible is full of stores of the faithful remnant. In Biblical theology, the remnant are those faithful people that survive some catastrophe. Today, these are the people who come to church, faithfully to say their prayers — people of devotion and not necessarily of evangelistic vim and vigour. They are the beating heart of the parish. Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie: these are my heroes. And long term, these are our most effective evangelists. I am deeply offended that they are now called passengers.”

This row has not yet made many headlines in the national press, for in a sense it has not yet happened. The explosive growth in House Churches will almost certainly not occur in the modest time set aside for it: three a day would have to be founded if the figure of 10,000 by 2030 were to be reached.

The Church of England will continue to live or die according to what happens in the parishes, and in many of these, it has become second nature to ignore anything containing the word “strategy” or “vision”, and to get on with the task in hand, which often means the laity have already shouldered a greater share of the burden.

Wonderful things, undreamt of by the central bureaucracy, continue to take place in thousands of parishes.

Lucy Winkett: Churches have played a vital role throughout Covid. But their buildings are increasingly under threat.

20 Oct

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, a writer and broadcaster. 

The new House of Good report by the National Churches Trust confirmed in figures what I, as Rector of a central London church, see in everyday life. Church buildings, whether in urban or rural areas, can be and often are, hubs of community activity inspired by, but not constrained by, their central religious purpose on a Sunday.

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing isolation, loneliness, mental fragility and economic deprivation on a huge scale. Churches provide enormous value, far beyond what is often a small gathered congregation once a week or a couple of times a month.   

It may seem a strange thing for the church to do; to try to quantify in hard data, what the value of its work is. On one level, of course this is right; our main activity – prayer and worship – is almost by definition, immeasurable. But what the report calls the “Halo effect” is key. There are social, economic and cultural activities undertaken by churches in their local communities that can be measured.

The report, which for the first time evaluates the economic and social impact of churches, found them to be contributing services worth £12.4 billion: a combination of direct market value, volunteers’ time, the replacement cost of services and wellbeing value based on the wellbeing adjusted life year (WELLBY) measurement. 

Like many other churches, for years St James’s Church, Piccadilly has provided care and support for anyone who passes by, whether they are local workers, people going through homelessness or people in need of someone to talk to. Churches throughout the UK in every denomination are hosting food banks, addiction support services, mental health support and youth services. The need for these community-building initiatives is greater than ever.  

Although much has been written about church worship going digital as a result of Covid-19, much less attention has been paid to the way that churches have continued to provide help for people in need. While the pandemic closed church buildings for some time, the House of Good report has found that 89 per cent of church communities have continued to provide a range of help to local people, including a highly adaptive approach to the worship itself.

The need for this provision is bound to increase as businesses close and work across the hospitality, travel and cultural sectors dries up and more people are experiencing financial hardship. Families with one or two parents out of work, or in uncertain work, are increasingly resorting to food banks, the majority of which are housed in churches.

More people are now isolated or lonely, deprived of their usual social interactions and unable to meet up with loved ones. This has had a massive impact on mental health and on drug and alcohol abuse – and this will drive up the need for the counselling services and addiction support meetings which take place in church buildings. And the cheery socially distanced coffee morning, which might be the sole social contact for some, is taking on renewed importance as churches find the determination to adapt the old ways of gathering people together.  

But these buildings themselves are under threat, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK. These churches, often hundreds of years old, contend with crumbling roofs, deteriorating church halls, and inadequate kitchen and toilet facilities, which can make them unsuitable for the community help they provide and can lead to them being closed altogether.  

900 churches in the UK are currently on the Historic England “at risk” register and, on average, one Church of England church closes every fortnight. The National Churches Trust is approached by several hundred churches every year who are struggling to afford essential repairs and maintenance of their buildings, but they can only afford to fund one quarter of these applications. 

Many people think that church authorities or government pay for the upkeep of the UK’s church buildings. But it is actually up to parishes themselves to raise the money needed to repair a leaking roof or fix a crumbling spire. Very often, the sums needed are not large, but what this report shows is that the investment, however small, has an amplifier effect in terms of the good work that can be generated in a building that has a functioning toilet, a secure roof, a working boiler.

Because of their strategic importance, Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have an important role to play in helping to keep church buildings in good repair. 

Following on the successful “Taylor Pilots” run by Historic England, the NCT report shows that the Government could and should examine how best to establish a new repair and maintenance fund for places of worship. The social and economic benefit of doing so is now plain, and outlined in the data contained in this report.

Simple steps can be taken to increase the social and economic impact that church buildings can have on their localities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme pays for the VAT incurred in works to listed buildings in use as places of worship. In October 2019 it was announced that the scheme is to be extended by the Treasury for a further year until March 2021. This scheme should be guaranteed for at least the next five years, to provide certainty for churches undertaking repair projects. 

The devolved administrations and local authorities also have a role to play in providing a strategic overview for church buildings. This could include imaginative funding schemes, such as the Community Facilities Programme in Wales, which has provided grants to a wide range of buildings, including places of worship. 

Church buildings are “key places” – a ready-made network of responsive hubs that look after the care and wellbeing of the local community.

Together, let’s make sure these Houses of Good remain at the heart of the communities for which they were built – and can continue to play an integral part in the building of community and strengthening of society among all of us, from all faiths and none.

Chris Whitehouse: Faith leaders have a moral duty to be better prepared for the next pandemic

27 Jun

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.

Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.

Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.

]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.

No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.

All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.

Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.

But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.

For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.

For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.

That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?

That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.

This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.

Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?

For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.

Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.

Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.

Matt Kilcoyne: An unholy alliance is frustrating our freedom to shop on Sunday. Johnson should take it on.

24 Jun

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

An unholy alliance of small shops, supermarkets with convenience stores, unions and the church has formed again to oppose ending Sunday trading restrictions. The whole argument against letting the big shops open after 6.00pm appears quite confected. After all, no other industry has this weird restriction in place. Our NHS doctors and nurses can work Sunday night.

Few small business owners will refuse to help a customer if they come a-knocking after hours with a genuine need. You can even order online and have it delivered on a Sunday.

Meanwhile, if you’re a reporter with a sharp nose for a story it doesn’t matter if it breaks after your shift. Notably, an article announcing opposition to ending Sunday trading restrictions was published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, indicating at least some of the editing was undertaken after 5.00pm the previous day.

Indeed, I’ve done something rather naughty while writing this. For you see, most of this piece was itself written on the Sabbath, by my own free choice. And unlike shift workers, I don’t even get paid to do so.

Yet for some reason, we arbitrarily do not allow shops larger than 3,000 square feet to open for more than six hours between 10.00am and 6.00pm on a Sunday. Deuteronomy is famous for its niche laws governing every aspect of the observant’s life, but I must have missed the verse that says shops with 3,001 square feet are too big, and that opening for more than six hours is forbidden.

The Old Testament calls for a day of rest. We have those written into law, just at times of our own choosing rather than convention. Universality is lovely in morals, but can be poor in practice.

Our restrictions hurt consumers, workers and businesses. They hold workers back from flexible and well-compensated hours; they reduce consumer choice; and they put pressure on time-poor and cash-poor parents in tight spots.

These current laws unfairly punish larger shops, when in fact these larger shops are precisely the ones that allow for much greater social distancing in the context of Covid-19. It is, to be frank, bizarre to encourage people to go to smaller shops, with the higher risk of interaction and contagion.

The same arguments Conservatives made against Sadiq Khan shutting down the tube at the beginning of this pandemic apply to those that want to control hours of opening for Sunday shoppers.

A great deal of our economy has gone off the cliff  but, like Wiley Coyote, we seem to have not yet realised. Instead of debates over the shopping habits of the past, we need as many ways as possible to increase transactions, consumption, and employment as we can muster.

We also need to find ways to keep us safe against the undimmed viral threat by allowing greater social distancing in stores, which is certainly helped by spreading out shoppers and staff over the week.

We consumer capitalists at the Adam Smith Institute have noted before that shoppers actually like the extra bit of choice: when Sunday trading laws were suspended during the Olympics, sales increased 2.8 per cent inside of London and 6.2 per cent outside of London.

The current restrictions are not even that traditionally British. Scotland has no restrictions on Sunday trading — workers have a right not to work on a Sunday should they so wish. Northern Ireland has even stricter laws than England and Wales, meaning you can only go to the supermarket between 1pm and 6pm.

Keep Sunday Special is made up of: the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents; the Federation of Wholesale Distributors; the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the Church of England, and post offices.

Beside the Church of England, which understandably wants us all in the pews rather than pounding the high street, you may have spotted the giant vested interests in this campaign. All the shops are themselves quite happily open on Sunday (and that includes some supermarkets with smaller inner city stores too), those that supply these small stores, a union that wants to limit labour competition, and the post offices that are reliant on corner shops.

This has nothing to do with keeping Sunday special. It has everything to do with shutting out the competition.

The idea that we’re a downtrodden people beholden to capitalists that want us to work every single second of every single day like Scrooge himself is both wrong and wrongheaded. The opposition and the quick backtrack from Number 10 also shows something much more worrying: a weakness for sticking to a choice when it’s made at the heart of a government.

Instead of the surety that should come with an 80-seat majority and the public’s support, we’ve had another U-turn in record time. In the face of obvious vested interests and a small but vociferous campaign that says it can muster 50 MPs to its cause, but only managed seven names on an open letter. And there’s something really off and quite worrying about the Chief Whip’s personal opinion ending up on the front page of theTelegraph.

For a Government that is supposedly obsessed with public opinion, this decision shows a deaf ear. A recent YouGov poll found 48 per cent in favour of abolishing Sunday trading rules with just 31 per cent against. Conservative voters were most in favour – with 53 per cent of self-identified Tories saying they would support relaxed trading hours rules.

Nobody is going to suddenly turn up at your house at 6.00pm on the Lord’s day, and drag you out of the house to a supermarket and stand over you while you weep in the veg aisle. But your opposition to Sunday trading should not prevent me from having that choice.

Boris Johnson should take back control of the agenda from a vocal minority on Sunday trading. The existing rules are inconsistent and hypocritical. They do not reflect a 24/7 economy, where people can purchase online and receive deliveries any time. They are backed by vested interests masquerading under a campaign of faux outrage. In their place, with a decisive move to liberalise, could come more opportunities to work, hours that meet our needs and reduced risk — and a reflection of the values of the voters that put the Conservatives back into power in December.