LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A London archbishop says opening churches is not just a matter of religious freedom, but of “basic equality and justice.”
Writing to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark – which covers the parts of the British capital south of the River Thames – said there is a “growing frustration that churches remain closed for private, individual, visits of prayer.”
Churches were closed on March 23 when Johnson put the United Kingdom in lockdown to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
“We accepted this as part of the important strategic effort to save lives and contain the spread of COVID-19. Important Christian festivals during Holy Week and Easter all took place behind closed doors, each priest celebrating alone without a congregation,” Wilson wrote on May 31.
The archbishop noted that as restrictions have been lifted – outdoor markets and car showrooms were allowed to operate from June 1 and non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen on June 15 – churches are being left out.
Wilson said he is receiving letters and emails everyday asking for churches to be reopened.
“For Catholics, access to church buildings is spiritually essential, something recognized by other governments internationally. Respectfully, I believe that it is now time for churches to be allowed to open for individual visits for private prayer,” the letter continues.
Under the current government plan, churches would only be allowed to reopen in July at the earliest.
Wilson said supervision and hygiene regimes can be put in place, similar to those in supermarkets, and any churches that cannot implement these would remain closed.
“At stake here are two paramount principles. The first is freedom of religion and the second is basic equality and justice,” he explained. “Total church closure was justifiable in the initial weeks of the pandemic. However, to enable non-essential shops and services to open, while keeping churches closed for individual prayer, is an infringement of both religious freedom and equity.”
The archbishop told the Prime Minister he was not requesting special treatment for the Catholic Church and acknowledged that the government established a Faith Task Force seeking to address the needs of religious groups, which includes representatives from the Catholic Church.
However, he said there is still “a growing sense of dissatisfaction” among the faith community.
“I ask that you please take seriously the needs of different religious traditions and, where their place of worship is necessary to their faith, you create parity of access consistent with that for retail outlets,” Wilson said.
“The long-term mental health implications of COVID-19 are as yet unknown. Religious faith can help support people, both directly and indirectly, with respect to their wellbeing. Access to places of worship is integral to this,” he added.
The four parts of the UK – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – are in charge of lifting lockdown measures, and Northern Ireland has already opened churches for private prayer.
Wilson reminded Johnson the decision for England “rests with you and I believe that it is now time to make this possible.”
The Southwark archbishop’s letter came at the same time that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster – whose archdiocese covers the portions of London north of the River Thames – used his Pentecost sermon to also call for the reopening of churches in the country.
Nichols, who is also the president of the bishops’ conference for England and Wales, said he is “confident” the Catholic churches in England can reopen safely.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome