James Somerville-Meikle: Religious services are essential for many people; the Government must not stop them again.

9 Nov

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

To ban religious services once could be seen as unfortunate. To ban them twice in a year looks like carelessness.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, this is sadly not a comedy.

The Government has once again prohibited religious services in England as part of its second national lockdown. While places of worship can still open for private prayer, religious services are banned until December 2.

Something that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the year has now happened twice. We must not allow it to happen again.

While closing places of worship in the first lockdown was extremely painful, it was understood that we faced an unknown virus and the priority was to protect the NHS and save lives. We now know significantly more about this virus and how to control it.

If you’ve been into any church since the summer, you will have probably encountered an army of masked cleaners with disinfectant spray, one-way systems, and people collecting contact details for NHS Test and Trace. The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country have made churches, and other places of worship, examples of how to make public buildings Covid-secure.

This has given faith leaders confidence to speak out against the ban. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, spoke of the “deep anguish” felt by Catholics at seeing churches closed for services. A feeling shared by many other people of faith.

The decision was also criticised by many MPs and peers during the limited time for debate on the regulations in Parliament. Edward Leigh MP, the Catholic Union President, described “outlawing religious services” as a “disproportionate response to the pandemic”.

Outlawing religious services – taking away a basic pillar of religious freedom – is a grave intrusion into our fundamental human rights. It should never become an acceptable response to the challenges we face, particularly not for a Conservative government.

Talk of “outlawing” religious services is no exaggeration. The Government is not simply asking Christians to stop attending church, or suggesting to Jewish people that they should stay away from synagogues, or encouraging Hindus and Sikhs to give up Diwali celebrations. It is forcing them to do this by using the law.

Of course, it’s not just faith groups who are affected by these restrictions. Daily life has become harder for almost every person in England and had consequences for people across the United Kingdom. Millions are worried about their jobs or businesses. There are a growing number of people in need as a result of this pandemic, and faith groups are often on the frontline in providing help.

People of faith are not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing. It’s an important test of whether we understand the importance of faith to people’s lives and whether we’re prepared to reflect that in policy.

The new restrictions are significantly different to the full lockdown earlier in the year, in many ways for the better. More institutions are considered to be providing essential services, including schools and universities. A greater number of shops have been given essential status, including garden centres. And there will be far more essential journeys, with people encouraged to go to work if they cannot work from home.

The decision to label more aspects of life as “essential” under the new restrictions may help to avoid the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown. But it has also led to the Government straying into difficult territory by determining what is and isn’t essential in our lives – something which is generally best left to people to decide.

Excluding religious services from this list sends a message to faith groups that collective worship is deemed unnecessary.

This was not helped by the Prime Minister failing to mention places of worship in his speech on October 31. People were left to check on the Government’s website to see how the new restrictions would impact their churches, synagogues, and mosques. For the millions of people for whom prayer and worship is the rhythm of their lives, this omission will have been noted.

It shows that once again the “religious literacy” of those making decisions needs to be improved. A good start would be giving more clout to the Faith Taskforce, which was set up by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, to advise on reopening places of worship after the last lockdown.

The ban on religious services is particularly frustrating given the lack of evidence for the decision. Are people really more at risk of catching the virus in a socially distanced church service than they are in a garden centre or lecture theatre? Or for that matter is a church used for praying more of a public health risk than a church used for worship?

When pushed for evidence on the spread of the virus in places of worship, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Had any evidence existed, the response from faith leaders would have been very different. People of faith have shown they are just as prepared as anyone to make sacrifices in the national interest. Closing places of worship was accepted earlier this year, while energy was focused on maintaining the services they run – such as food banks and bereavement support groups. Given the lack of evidence for the current ban, faith leaders have every right to complain.

Controlling the second wave of the virus was perhaps always going to be harder than the first. If there’s one thing worse than not having evidence, it’s being faced with a huge body of evidence and needing to make tough decisions.

Increasingly it seems that policy priorities are shaping the Government’s response to the pandemic, just as much as science and evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we need to get our priorities right. Policies that allow people to go to a garden centre on a Sunday morning, but not church, suggests that a rethink is required.

Over the next few weeks, difficult decisions will need to be made once again about the way out of lockdown. Above all, this will be a test of what we value. The Government should listen to our country’s faith leaders who have called for places of worship to reopen fully in light of their essential nature.

Banning religious services must not become part of the “new normal.”