St Thomas Becket once threatened to shut down public Masses in England. When the plague swept through 16th-century Milan, St Charles Borromeo replaced church services with street Masses which people could watch from their windows. And this year theologians have honestly disagreed over the drastic measures taken by church leaders.
But it’s one thing for bishops to take these decisions. When the bishops don’t want to prohibit public liturgy, and the government does it anyway, a dangerous line has been crossed.
The bishops have made it clear that – unlike last time – they don’t see any justification for the ban on public worship in England; and it’s the bishops who are ordained to run the Church, not Boris Johnson. So what has happened this week is the secular power claiming the right to regulate the life of the Church: a disturbing reality however you try to dress it up.
In effect, the bishops are accusing the government of being high-handed and unaccountable; and they are not alone. From the largely pro-lockdown left, there are allegations that the government’s awarding of contracts has contradicted its own anti-corruption policies. From the more anti-lockdown right, there are fears that essential civil liberties are under threat. The common theme is that the state is acting without transparency, without dialogue, without any of the checks and balances which keep a government democratic.
Does it sound alarmist to say that “making it illegal to conduct an act of worship for the best of intentions sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions”? That’s not someone sounding off on Twitter, but the former prime minister Theresa May speaking in the House of Commons.
Does it sound excessive to say that we have been “terrorized into surrendering basic freedoms”, that we are witnessing “the most determined attempt by any modern government to rule by decree”, and that we are becoming a “nominal democracy” which is a fig leaf for “an authoritarian reality”? Those phrases do not come from a conspiracy theorist, but from the former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption.
The modern state has extraordinary powers to control and survey the public; there is a constant temptation to use those powers irresponsibly. And when a country takes an authoritarian turn, it is often the Church which suffers most of all.
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