This article, by Paul Sapper, originally was published by ‘Reaction.’ at https://Reaction.life, and is reproduced with permission.
The criminalisation of Christian worship in lockdown cannot be allowed to happen again
As the United Kingdom’s second lockdown comes to a conclusion ahead of one of the most important events of the Christian calendar – Christmas – we are in urgent need of reflection on the restrictions imposed on worship across our country.
The coronavirus lockdowns have outlawed all communal worship in Britain twice and in a way that is historically unprecedented. Ever since Christianity came to this island over 1500 years ago, church doors have never been closed to all believers for extended periods of time, even though there have been far worse plagues, wars and disasters than the one our country currently faces.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, 122 church leaders have decided this action from the state has been unacceptable and are pursuing a judicial review over the government’s actions in England and Wales. They argue that the bans on communal worship are illegal, as they are in violation of Article 9 of The Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees freedom of religion.
The legal action states that the government has not provided the necessary evidence to justify the closure of churches. It also cites statements from the chief scientific advisors Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, who, when asked about this question of evidence, said: “We haven’t got good evidence”, “this is not a very exact science at all” and “we don’t have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”
Dr Gavin Ashenden, a Roman Catholic layman and former Honorary Chaplain to the Queen who is personally involved in the legal action, told Reaction why he considers church closures – and the wider cultural trends that have led to their closures – a potentially life or death issue.
Ashenden pointed out that the only countries that have sought to ban all Christian worship in recent years are the Soviet tyrannies of the 20th century and warned of the dangers of following, even unintentionally, their example.
Although the legal action has been brought forward mostly by Protestant church leaders, there is a unity across Christian denominations in the UK in criticising the government’s actions. Both Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, along with leaders from other faiths, have signed letters criticising the closure of churches, and urging the government to reverse their decision.
The current national lockdown is due to be replaced with tiered restrictions on 2 December, which will permit communal worship, but the judicial review will continue because there is a desire to establish a legal precedent that will prevent the state from ever closing the churches in a similar manner again.
This seems necessary because it appears likely that the government will consider further national lockdowns after this one. Only days after the new tiered system was announced, there are already reports that government scientific advisors are warning of a third national lockdown in January.
Ashenden pointed out that Christians in this country, from Thomas Becket, Henry’s II’s famously-turbulent and ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury, to the Protestant and Catholic dissenters in the 16th century, have through the ages laid their lives down to acquire and preserve the religious liberties that our government has now taken away so carelessly.
He said: “If you’re reasonably literate in history you know that, from time to time, Christians in our country have had to take on the state in a life or death struggle, for some people it’s literally been life or death, and this breaks out every two or three hundred years. It just so happens that it has broken out again in our time.
“About 150 years ago it broke out when the courts disliked a Catholic renewal in the Church of England, and so a number of priests were sent to prison for breaking the house rules of the Anglican Church. And it was quite unpleasant and a matter of some serious concern in terms of freedom of conscience and liberty, but it was nothing like what is happening now in our generation.
“It is quite extraordinary to me that once again the government should seek to close the doors of the churches, which it has never done in a wholesale way before.
“When a state has done this, it has typically been in totalitarian Marxist regimes. In the 1980s, I smuggled Bibles and theology books behind the Iron Curtain. I got to know something of Marxism in practice and of totalitarian regimes, and I thought this was a glitch in world history.
“Nobody could have been more surprised than me when, ten years ago, I began to get the sense that the experience I’d had behind the Iron Curtain had bounced out of nowhere, morphed somehow, and was coming at me through a different form.
“So although people have mocked the phrase cultural Marxism as a kind of right wing piece of madness, the fact is that the very same egalitarian, equality of outcome values, which drove the communist revolution from 1917 onwards, have re-emerged in a different guise; it is no longer the proletariat against capitalism, but instead a re-arrangement of cultural values.
“The effect is exactly what happened then, which is to silence the churches and to silence the Christian vision and the Christian articulation of what human beings are here to do. So there’s a bigger picture than just our national history.
“Now, you might immediately respond: ‘Yes but the government has closed the churches down in the face of a pandemic, not a value-system.’ And that’s where the problem comes, because if the government’s actions followed the best scientific and medical advice, one would have to take a deep sigh and say, ‘Well, it looks like we’ve been caught by health and safety issues, who knew that was going to come?’
“But I think the problem we find the more we educate ourselves on the science and medical issues behind the virus, is that the government has not taken the best advice. In fact it’s actually working behind a smoke-screen of falsified figures, falsified science and falsified medicine, and on the basis of that it’s using the pandemic to close the churches.
“So it’s almost as if, rather like a Russian doll, every time you open it there’s another reason inside, and you have to open that one and see, ‘Is that one authentic?’ and as we go through the dolls, none of them are authentic! In which case Christians have to stand up and challenge the status quo, in the name of personal conscience and our allegiance to Christ.”
What Ashenden points towards is not some grand conspiracy of cunning Marxists plotting in secret. What he suggests is that the fundamental reordering of our cultural values over the last few decades has served to undermine considerations and protections for worship that would once have been taken for granted. There is a general conviction that it is not a problem to command British Christians not to worship – no matter how shaky or inconsistent the scientific evidence for that command may be.
Ashenden’s claims are also supported by the fact that the UK Statistics Authority criticised the government for its misleading projections, used to justify the second lockdown, that the country could see over 4,000 Covid deaths a day, which was deemed to be a vast over-estimation as well as the growing scientific evidence in support of lockdown scepticism.
There have been reports of underground Christian gatherings during the second lockdown, with police breaking up a baptism at north London’s Angel Church. Ashenden has predicted that if the government decides to renew the closure of churches without evidence, civil disobedience will only increase. His words remind us of the famous refrain of Matthew 22:21 – “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.”
When it comes to believers’ private and personal spiritual life, a Christian’s first duty is to God, not to the whims of the government.
Ashenden explains: “The government clearly has the legal right to close churches because it passed the laws to do so, but Christians know perfectly well that there are moments when our moral obligations and our legal obligations tragically conflict. This is one of them.
“Either the government hears us, and is educated by us, and accepts the moral principles that we are educating ministers with, or it refuses to hear us. Now if they hear us, then all is well and good, we open the churches, and all is well.
“But should they refuse, then that ought to set a number of Christians on a collision course with the state authorities, in exactly the same way and for the same reasons as we found inside the Soviet Union in the beginning part of the last century.
“It’s absolutely the case that Christians ought to be able to have the freedom to worship behind closed doors. Now, immediately, some people will say, ‘In this context you’re endangering other people,’ and that’s when we have to go back and say, ‘Well actually, if we take sensible precautions, please show us the evidence that what we do in a church has endangered anyone’s life ever,’ and there is no evidence.
“So suddenly, a society that prides itself on empiricism and rationalism has instead resorted to the superstitious and the authoritarian, so we are entitled to call the government out and say, ‘You have lost your moral justification. You retain your legal justification, but you have lost your moral justification, and we refuse, therefore, to accept the basis on which you are trying to order our lives. It is without merit.’
“If the chief medical and scientific advisors say, ‘There is no evidence for the political decisions we’ve made, the basis on which we have founded our decisions doesn’t exist,’ you’d be irresponsible if you didn’t challenge it and refuse to accept it. What are we, lemmings? We would have no integrity if we accepted that nonsense.”
Ashenden sees the origins and effects of the restriction of religious liberties in this country as metaphysically evil, though he holds that the politicians implementing them do not understand the gravity of their actions and are merely misguided.
He does not believe that the government has actively intended to persecute Christians, but rather thinks that a convergence of opportunities between different agencies led to the current policy decisions. The government has negatively affected religious liberties as an unintended, collateral, consequence of these policy decisions that were well-intentioned but poorly conceived.
He added: “I think as Christians we have to do more than read the situation through historical and political eyes, I think we are entitled to read it through spiritual and metaphysical eyes. And what that means is that when you find a cultural or political force setting out deliberately to attack Christianity and Christian worship, then you say to yourself, ‘This has an evil provenance.’
“The people may not be evil. The people may be misguided, they may be pawns, that would go perfectly well along with the metaphysical understanding of the relationship between evil and human beings.
“I don’t think they do know what they’re doing. Insofar as there is responsibility, I want to trace it back to metaphysical roots, but I think if one speaks politically, in terms of human agency, I’m sure that it’s incompetence.
“I’m quite sure that most of the people making choices in government are simply utterly, woefully and reprehensibly ignorant, and there’s another reason why we have to speak out and try to educate them and say: ‘Look, we are not ignorant, we are not narrow-minded, we are not prejudiced, we are not bigots, we’re actually relatively well-informed representatives of the very culture that gave you the privileges you most enjoy. And, as a result, you have a duty to listen to us.’”
Ashenden believes that the stakes are very high, and that if things continue in their current trajectory in this country, Christians could find themselves in life or death situations, just as believers here found themselves in past centuries, and just as Christians in the 20th century found themselves in the Soviet Union, when confronted with a state that was actively hostile to their faith.
He concludes: “In an increasingly fluid situation, where the church is coming under more and more destructive pressure, every Christian ought to say to the Lord, ‘What would you like me to do in this situation?’, and I want to recognise that some Christians will find that their role is quiet and passive and prayerful and anonymous. Other Christians on the other end of the scale may find themselves called to martyrdom.
“One of the things that has become clearer to me is that whilst this virus is obviously a morally neutral biological phenomenon, it has become the instrument for evil, if evil is expressed in terms of attacks on the worship of Christ and the integrity and the conscience of Christians as disciples of Christ. And that’s certainly the situation we are facing now.”
If someone had said 20 years ago that Christians in this country, which prides itself on its religious freedoms, would soon have to gather in secret for fear of being arrested or charged with ruinous fines, they would not have been believed. In deciding on this legal action, the courts have the opportunity to avert this crisis, shun the path taken by the Marxist tyrannies of the past, and bring this country back in step with hard-won, centuries-old traditions of liberty.