The treatment of churches during the Covid 19 scare has ranged from the unreasonable and illogical to the illegal.
For the unreasonable and illogical we might turn to Mike Keirle, the Dean of Jersey who has a voice in the States legislature. This is one of those important moments when you need a Christian in a parliament. He asked the obvious and unanswerable question as to why the Jersey government was relaxed with 80 people in a restaurant but banned anything over 20 in a Church? A minister has generously agreed to meet him and ‘discuss it’.
For the illegal we might visit Milton Keynes where God has to be satisfied with being restricted to electronic worship, on line.
Some people may only know it as a rather bland London overspill with more than its fair share of roundabouts.
Not anymore. The Chief Superintendent Robert France, Gold Commander for Thames Valley Police has had to apologisehaving discovered his officers found the law complex and didn’t know it. His police force burst into a Church which was in the middle of an online broadcast they disrupted and finally closed down, ignoring the Government rules and legislation.
He explained how difficult it was for the police.
“It appears… that there has been a misunderstanding by our officers of the legislation in place.”
Any fair-minded person could see the difficulties the police were placed in, and perhaps the most generous among you may want to feel sympathy for them in this confusing time.
As the Gold Commander went on to explain, policing churches “is an ever-changing and complex area of enforcement.”
The rather difficult implication is that when the law gets this complex, maybe it is too much to expect the Police to know what the law is.
Luckily, there are some well informed and publicly spirited members of the community who are ready to help them. As it happened, Mr Mateola, pastor of the Kingdom Faith Ministries Church, although busy as a pastor and family man, unlike the police who burst into his church and threatened him with prosecution, had read the law. He offered to help the police officers with it. In case their busy professional lives had got in the way of actually knowing what they were and weren’t permitted to do.
They might have thanked him for the courteous clarity that he brought to the situation, this being an “ever-changing and complex area” they didn’t. Instead they radioed for back up.
This was a tough gig after all. Here was an unusually challenging situation of a member of the public who had read what the law required, threatening to explain it to them. Sevenmore police burst into the church to contain the situation.
It turned out that along with not knowing what the law said,the police could not count. They were outraged that there were 30 people in the building.
“Not so ” said Pastor Mateola, ever helpful and unlike them, also numerate, there were 15.
He counted them out for the officers, and explained that each one of them had a job to do in the business of putting this service on line, and that they were observing social distancing and all in sperate rooms.
He pointed out that the law said “Attending a place of worship for broadcasting or filming an act of worship is permitted but should only involve those people working or volunteering who are essential for the content of the service, and for technical support to enable people to watch and worship online or via a television or radio.” He explained what each one was doing.
Luckily, although the police didn’t know the law, and couldn’t count, they did bring a certain technical expertise to the broadcasting enterprise. They told Mr Mateola that only two people were allowed in the church. “One to speak and the other to hold the microphone and press the record button.”
After an hour of failing to persuade the police that the arrangements were a little more demanding than that, Pastor Mateola was forced to give up, cancel the broadcast and leave the Church.
Four days later, under cover of dark, the police knocked on his door at home. His home security camera recorded the conversation.
The woman PC read him his rights as he opened the door and told him he was going to be prosecuted for breaking Covid 19 regulations.
“I am here to tell you that you are going to be formerly reported to court for what happened…you do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention now something you later rely on in court…you will receive something in the post to tell you what happens next.”
Pastor Mateola responded saying: “You have totally disregarded government guidelines, I kept showing them to you… but you said it didn’t matter and you were going to go ahead whatever the sergeant said…I complied with you, you totally destroyed everything we were trying to do with the broadcast…you didn’t even know the guidelines and we have ended up being harassed for no reason.”
You may wonder why I’m going to so much trouble to share Daniel Mateola’s experiences with you. He and I are part of a group of “122 Church leaders” who with the Christian Legal Centre are challenging the Government’s right to close churches that observe all the medical, hygenic and scientific guidance for social distancing.
We may all have different opinions about the medical, legal and political issues as stake here. But is beyond a doubt is that we ought to be able to expect the police to know the law and apply the law even-handedly. I would like to ask the Gold Commander of Thames Valley police why they didn’t feel the need to apply the Law to BLM protesters wilfully ignoring all guidelines in public, but persecute and harass Christians in their churches who were observing the law.
As Mr France, the Gold Commander finally was finally forced to admit: ‘There has been a mistake in the issuing of this ticket and I would like to apologise for the distress I know this is likely to have caused.’