LEICESTER, United Kingdom – England’s Catholic bishops say the suspension of public worship during a four-week lockdown demonstrates “a fundamental lack of understanding of the essential contribution made by faith communities to the well-being, resilience and health of our society.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the second lockdown in England after a rapid rise in the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The lockdown began on Nov. 5 and is scheduled to end on Dec. 2, although government officials warn it could be lengthened if the spread of the virus is not slowed.
Under the United Kingdom’s devolved system of government, the UK government is only responsible for England’s COVID-19 response. Wales entered a two-week “circuit break” — which also closed churches — on Oct. 23. It is scheduled to end on Nov. 9. Scotland introduced a 5-level system of restrictions on Nov. 2, although no part of the country will be on the highest level. Northern Ireland entered a month-long “circuit break” on Oct. 16, although public liturgies have not been banned.
In a Nov. 3 letter, Cardinal Vincent Nichols – the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales – joined other faith leaders in England in urging the government to allow public worship to continue, saying “common worship is an important way of sustaining the wellbeing, and ability to serve, of people of faith who volunteer.”
“We have demonstrated, by our action, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from COVID transmission. Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship,” the letter from faith leader said.
Johnson also received pushback from his predecessor, former Prime Minister Theresa May, who said the decision could have unfortunate repercussions.
“My concern is that the government today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a Government in the future with the worst of intentions,” May told Parliament on Nov. 4.
Despite these objections, the government guidelines implementing the lockdown banned public worship, although allowed churches and other houses of worship to remain open for private prayer.
Reacting to this decision, the English bishops issued a statement on Nov. 4 saying, “despite profound misgivings it is important that we, as responsible citizens, observe these regulations, which have the force of law.”
“We do this in solidarity with so many others on whom are being imposed restrictions which impact severely on their lives and livelihoods,” said the letter, signed by Nichols and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, the bishops’ conference vice president.
“Churches remain open and in use for activities other than communal worship, including personal prayer and support for those in need,” the letter continues.
“It is also important to recognize that these regulations are not an attack on religious belief. However, they do demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the essential contribution made by faith communities to the well-being, resilience, and health of our society,” the bishops add.
“At this difficult moment, we ask that, as a Catholic community, we make full use of our churches as places of individual prayer and sources of solace and help,” they say. “This pathway of prayer and service is the royal road we are to take as a gracious witness in our society today.”
In their letter, the bishops call for the vigil of the Solemnity of Christ the King, observed on Nov. 21, be observed as a day of prayer for the ending of this pandemic.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome