There must be some sense of irony that in the week that the death of George Floyd with a policeman’s knee to his neck led to mass protests, a number of prominent Christians wrote proceedings here in the UK about perceived discrimination against the church.
Those who are involved believe that the Government should recognise the essential nature of Christian worship and that we should be able to open prior to things like cinemas and beauty salons. It’s a compelling narrative isn’t it. If we believe that the Government, and society at large sees churches as about as important as going to have your nails done or to watch the latest Marvel film then that is going to fuel a certain level of resentment.
Except that this is to misunderstand what is happening. The reality is very different. Far from seeking to ignore or marginalise the church at this time, the Government have taken time to consult representative church leaders throughout the process. The message has been clear, the question about when churches and also mosques, synagogues and temples should reopen is not to do with the government’s view of how essential those places are but the level of risk of disease spread caused by activities in those places. Churches are therefore more comparably to cinemas than to super-markets when it comes to the amount of time spent in them and level of contact.
Further, I might have had more time for those commencing this action if they had not waited until a few weeks before the very things they are demanding are going to be allowed anyway. The question is “Why now?” The answer seems to be that this has less to do with challenging the Government and more to do with internal church politics. At the same time as Christian Concern For Our nation (CCFON) launched their campaign, they also published an article by Joe Root accusing Evangelical leaders of passive silence and a failure to challenge the Government. The article is a response to Danny Webster’s article f stating that churches are not rushing to open too early.
Oddly given that CCFON is associated with and primarily supported by Evangelicals, they seem to be siding with those promoting a completely different understanding of what it means to be churches. The emphasis in their argument is on the ability to offer sacraments from a church building and to open buildings for private prayer. As Evangelicals we take the sharing of the Lord’s Supper seriously but do not depend on a ritualistic, semi-magical approach. As Evangelicals we believe in the importance of gathering for worship. However, the idea that a church building is a sacred space where people need to be able to go and pray on their own is not something we find in the Bible. Indeed pushing or buildings to be open so people can come in and pray but where no interaction with others is permitted in effect will turn vicars and pastors up and down the country into caretakers and take them away from evangelism, discipleship and pastoral care.
The central premise of the attack on other evangelicals is simply not true. The point Danny Webster was making in his article was not that Evangelicals are sitting back content for our buildings to be closed and for gathered worship not to happen. We long for it, we grieve and lament. It causes us to weep.
Some of us have written publicly asking the government to prioritise plans for churches. Others have been involved in consultations urging the government to put in place those plans as soon as practically possible. It is possible to long to reopen our buildings whilst being clear that we are in no rush to get ahead of what is deemed safe.
There is no conspiracy of silence on this and no discrimination either. I am not saying that there are no challenges in an increasingly secular society. I am not saying that we can become complacent and assume that persecution won’t come to the UK. We have seen the warning signs in a number of ways in recent years
- Christian bed and breakfasts and bakers taken to court for believing in the sanctity of marriage
- Preachers arrested for reading from the Bible
- The Home Office failing to take seriously and wilfully misunderstanding asylum cases relating to faith in Christ.
These are not good signs and we should challenge where those things happen. However we are not yet at the stage where we are facing full on discrimination or persecution. This matters for three reasons.
- If we think of ourselves as the discriminated minority then we show a lack of love and concern for those who experience real and consistent discrimination. I mentioned at the start the case of George Floyd because sadly there are those who face constant abuse and discrimination still because of the colour of their skin.
- If we consider our present situation as tantamount to persecution then we risk belittling the real and intense persecution faced by Christians around the world and throughout history because of their faith. We forget that there are places where the state seeks to close or severely regulate church practices at all times in order to suppress religion. There are places where simply believing in Jesus and seeking to go to church is likely to result in arrest, imprisonment and even death. There are places where Christians are constantly targeted, denied an education, find that career paths are closed off to them.
- If we consider our present situation as tantamount to discrimination and persecution then we are unlikely to be ready for real persecution if and when it comes.
At a time of crisis when the fear of a disease is causing many people to experience spiritual hunger and come seeking hope and peace, when there are real opportunities to share the good news with people who are open to the Gospel, then I would rather prioritise sharing the good news than campaigning for my own rights.
 Church buildings are expected to open from the 4th July for private prayer.