A number of Christian leaders have joined with Christian Concern For Our Nation in taking legal action against the government for pursuing lockdown and the closing of church buildings during Coronavirus. I want to explain here why I disagree with the action and won’t be supporting it.
First of all, on one level, I respect those who have followed their conscience and took this action. At the start of the crisis, there was some debate about whether or not we could take communion during lockdown. One of the arguments made against taking communion was that a Zoom based Lord’s supper was not just a deficient Lord’s Supper, not just wrong or irregular but was no Lord’s supper at all. The argument was that, try as hard as we might, we were trying to do something impossible because communion depended upon us gathering and during the virus we could not gather.
My argument in response was that I believed a Zoom communion service was in fact a means of gathering and therefore, we could take communion. However, I argued that if people believe that the Government’s lockdown actions were preventing us from gathering, then they should not meekly accept them because God’s Word says
“Let us not give up meeting together…” Hebrews 10:25
This is a command that I believe comes to us from God and it comes without exception clauses. Scripture also says that we should obey the law of the land unless it brings us into conflict with God’s Word. I argued at the time, that if people seriously believed that the Government was seeking to prevent them from meeting that they should challenge this legally and seriously consider ways in which they might have to go about refusing to comply with such regulations whilst taking precautions to best protect against the spread of the disease.
Of course, your view on how to respond to such a situation will also depend on your view of whether a lockdown was truly necessary. My personal view, having read carefully on what happened around the world is that there could have been ways of safeguarding against the disease without a full lockdown. This would have depended upon having secure borders so that anyone coming into the country was quarantined and tested, local lockdowns and quarantining for localised outbreaks and a robust track and trace system being in place. I also believe that we needed to act quicker to protect our care homes. However, I also recognise that in a COVID-19 world, Governments were never going to win and that it was perfectly legitimate for them to try a lockdown. I also think (especially given that I am no epidemiologist) that whilst I may have read some papers, thought logically and come to a conclusion that the views of SAGE have slightly more standing than mine and I would do well to listen to expertise!
Therefore, my position is that the Government’s decision to impose a lockdown was legitimate and fair, even if painful and even if we did not all agree with it. Governments must make touch decisions. The lockdown meant that people could not go to school, the theatre or cinema, the shops, zoos, their parents’ house for a visit etc. It is not as though churches were picked upon at random and discriminated against.
This is important when it comes to the question of when churches re-opened. Was it right that we were banded with cinemas and hairdressers? Well first of all, we should not expect a secular government to understand the value of the Gospel but in any case, I understand that they have been clear in all their discussions that the issue was not about valuing religion but rather about the risk assessment. Church gatherings involve large groups of people meeting indoors, involve ceremonies where food and drink are shared and where there is physical contact through sharing the peace, laying on of hands etc. The Government was understandably cautious.
I believe that we were able to find ways to gather to some extent even if imperfect and without obstacles. I don’t believe that there is evidence to suggest that the lockdown discriminated against Christians as a class. Therefore, one has to ask what case is possible?
Really, a case would have to argue that the entire lockdown was unlawful because it restricted the freedoms of all members of society, not just Christians. And therefore we are getting to the heart of a bigger set of questions. Can a government legitimately put a lockdown in place as we have seen? If so, how should it go about it?
For the record my opinion is that:
- It is perfectly right and proper for a Government to implement emergency measures where necessary for a period of time due to a major crisis such as war or natural disaster. The Government has got certain responsibilities in terms of protecting its citizens.
- That this should be provided for in advance with legislation covering the circumstances in which powers can be introduced, the process for introducing them and their limitations.
- I believe that normal day to day politics needs to be suspended in such a time of crisis but that we still need in place systems to ensure accountability and critique and clear roles for MPs and the opposition.
- Personally in terms of the UK, my view was that as soon as this was a crisis where the Prime Minister was leading then the idea that this was simply a devolved health matter for the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh administrations was nonsensical. The measures included matters relating to human rights, to freedom of movement and potentially to both external and internal borders. This should therefore have been led from Westminister, again with appropriate, predefined constitutional involvement from the First Ministers.
I would hope that after this crisis is over that a proper enquiry takes place and Christian leaders engage with it. I think that is the best place to learn lessons rather than through litigation.
So, coming back to the case being taken against the Government, I cannot support it. The primary reason for this is that I just don’t see the point of it. We are now at the end of lockdown, the Government has tried to work with churches and vice versa to provide a roadmap out of lockdown. Surely any case taken would have been more useful at the start?
However, there is one other thing that grates with me. The tone of much I have read in relational to this case seems to lack any sense of grace and understanding for others. There is a critical tone towards other Christians and a presumption of motives. Churches that have complied with lockdown and not protested are accused of following a “health and safety Gospel.” Those not yet re-opening are accused of cowardice. We re-opened last Sunday, not all of our members were present. However, I am not going to start criticising the members who were not yet ready to return nor the churches that weren’t ready. I’m not going to accuse them of failing to share the gospel or disciple their flocks. I don’t think they are cowards. I recognise that coming through this crisis has presented different challenges for different contexts and so each of us has responded in good faith. A court case which has as one of its main effects a break down in love and fellowship between believers cannot be a good thing.
So whilst respecting the convictions behind the decision to bring this case, I think it is a mistake. I would urge those pursuing the case to withdraw from this unnecessary, unhelpful action and instead re-join a conversation with brothers and sisters in Christ about how we best look after the church family and share the good news in trying times.