A few days ago, I signed my name to an open letter that was sent to the Prime Minister, First and Deputy First Ministers of the devolved regions of the UK. The letter garnered over 700 signatures and was a request for a measured response from government toward (potential) future closures of churches. The full text of the letter is below.
To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill
Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,
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.
Rev A Paul Levy, Minister, Ealing International Presbyterian Church, London
Rev David M Gobbett, Lead Minister, Highfields Church Cardiff, Wales
Rev Dr William JU Philip, Minister, The Tron Church, Glasgow, Scotland
Rev David Johnston, Minister Emeritus – Presbyterian Church in Ireland
Rev Dr Matthew PW Roberts, Minister, Trinity Church York, England
If you want to see why some signed it, David Robertson outlines his reasons here. If you want to know why some didn’t sign it, Dave Williams offers his reasons here. I echo David Robertson’s call, this is a matter of conscience and should not divide people. Some felt able to sign, some did not, let each be convinced in his own mind.
Had things simply been left at the point of the letter being sent, all would be well. I was more than happy to add my name to the list of signatories to the specific words as written in that letter. I would happily stand by what is written which, to my mind, is a measured call to allow churches to stay open. It was not a demand, it is a request. It offers reasons why that request is, and remains, reasonable.
Unfortunately, to my horror, I read an article in The Times (paywall) yesterday morning about this letter. The headline read: ‘Churches vow to stay open this time’. But, if you read the letter above, nothing in that suggested we were signing up to defy the government at this point. I, certainly, was not adding my name to the list of signatories to suggest that I would ‘vow to stay open’ come what may. But, I thought, never mind. Sometimes headline writers make hay with not very much.
But the content of the article, complete with quotes from some of the original authors of the letter, made the headline read exactly as it suggests. The article contained comment such as:
One of the letter’s four authors, the Rev Dr Matthew Roberts, of Trinity Church, York, said many were prepared to defy the government.
“Would we be willing to continue to gather people and call people to come together to worship God in a safe way even if the government says we’re not allowed to? The answer for many of our churches is yes, we would,” he says.
Where, exactly, in that letter did we sign up to say that we would defy the government? Even if the quote is intended to be clever ‘…many of our churches’, for example, clearly doesn’t mean all of our churches, it is a comment that reads to most people as though we are all gearing up to disobey when such was not written into the letter that we signed. It seems evidently true – based on both what they have been saying and on what they have done to date – that not even a significant minority of signatories to that letter would be looking to defy the government should they bring in a second wave of church closures.
That sort of comment was compounded when we read statements such as:
A dozen churches are already breaching restrictions on singing, according to Paul Levy, 43, minister of the International Presbyterian Church in Ealing, west London. He said about 200 churchgoers had been breaking the rules at his church with hymns and psalms.
“It seemed to us as leaders of the church that there was a conflict between what God commands and the law,” Levy said. “We chose to follow God’s commands.”
Now, to be clear, our church has not been singing. We have no intention of doing so until it has been deemed safe to do so. Making these sorts of comments implies that we are all happy breaking the guidelines when, as far as I can see, most churches are working hard to stay firmly within them. Again, there was no such comment in the letter we signed. Worse, the slightly high-handed ‘we chose to follow God’s commands’ rather sounds like those of us who haven’t followed suit – who signed a letter that made no such inference or comment – somehow are bowing the knee to Caesar.
Having spoken to some other leaders who have put their name to the letter (though it is for them to say publicly if they feel the need, not for me to reveal them), they feel aggrieved. They are adamant the quotes (not just the spin, but the specific verbatim quotes) are not representative of what they were signing. I do not believe those quotes represent what I signed my name to in the original letter. Nor do I feel they are in any way helpful to us. We were never told such follow up comments would be made nor would many of us have signed if we knew they were going to make them.
Frankly, if I could remove my signature and all association from it in light of this, I would. I maintain that the words and positions outlined in the letter are valid and legitimate. But I disassociate myself entirely from the comments that have been made since and do not accept as spokespeople those who would use such a letter to advance an altogether different agenda that many do not, and did not, co-sign. I suspect a number of others will feel similarly duped.