As a Member of Parliament based in Westminster, I am blessed to be very well served by the swimming club in the Serpentine and the 10:30 Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
It would be facile to compare swimming and the Mass. Swimming is good for your physical and mental health but ultimately just an enjoyable and refreshing pastime. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, however, is as the Second Vatican Council put it “the source and summit of the Christian life”. The two are in different leagues entirely, though I am deprived of both during this lockdown. Over the course of the past year, all of us have learned to live without things we hold dear.
In the Mass we show an outward sign of our unity with one another as well as humbly approaching the altar of God with all the burdens, worries, thanksgivings, and pleas of our everyday lives.
During the first lockdown, I think most of us gave the government the benefit of the doubt when our churches were shut and public worship was banned – even if we grumbled and disagreed with it. The virus was an unknown quantity, and much though watching a live-streamed Mass was no replacement for being physically present in church, the whole country and the whole world was learning how to deal with a novel threat we hadn’t faced in over a century.
The second lockdown is altogether different. Up and down the country, churches have adapted admirably to the requirements of public health. Risk reduction is now universal in our places of worship, with pews roped off for social distancing, mask wearing enforced by stewards, disinfectant gel available at all entrances, and helpful volunteers taking up cleaning rotas to ensure our churches are cleaner than perhaps ever before. This is as true of Westminster Cathedral in the heart of London as it is at my usual Sunday place of worship of Holy Rood, Market Rasen.
In addition to all this, so far as we can tell there is simply no evidence to show that churches with risk reduction and social distancing measures in place have helped to spread the virus. As Catholics we believe not just in faith but reason, and if public health experts could cite this study or that case, we would pause for thought.
One worry is that in banning public worship now for the best of intentions sets a precedent that could be misused by a future government with the worst of intentions
Surely when dealing with an epidemic like Covid-19 our decision-making must be based upon cold, hard, scientific evidence. When the matter came before both chambers of Parliament the plea was the same: show us the evidence behind this decision. The Health Secretary promised Public Health England would conduct an evidence review and the Prime Minister came up to tell me we’d get our churches back “soon” but the decision to ban public worship was mistaken from the start.
As our former prime minister Theresa May sagely pointed out, one worry is that in banning public worship now for the best of intentions sets a precedent that could be misused by a future government with the worst of intentions.
There is simply no evidence to show that churches with risk reduction and social distancing measures in place have helped to spread the virus.
On the floor of the House, the Prime Minister gave me a reassurance the worship ban would end with the second lockdown on 2 December. He took the trouble to come up to me to give his personal assurance on this, which is why I voted for the temporary lockdown. After all the fuss we have made, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Westminster not to mention our Jewish and Muslim friends, I am sure that public worship will restart in December. Even so, I organised a letter signed by more than seventy MPs and Peers asking the PM to guarantee that churches would be allowed to open for Christmas services.
At the heart of the matter is the essential difference between my swimming and my Mass attendance. A swimming club is a wonderful thing – one of the “little platoons” Burke wrote about, and certainly worth defending. But the public worship of God is not a private interest but an act of universal value. In the Mass we show an outward sign of our unity with one another as well as humbly approaching the altar of God with all the burdens, worries, thanksgivings, and pleas of our everyday lives. In it we observe God’s acts of creation, salvation, and making holy and by some unfathomable divine grace are able to partake in it.
The Government is right to take action to save lives, but when it comes to the Eucharist it has failed to understand something very basic: this is what we live for.
Sir Edward Leigh MP is a British Conservative Party politician who has served as a Member of Parliament continuously since 1983. Leigh represents Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.
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