The British government’s announcement of plans for a second prolonged round of restrictions on commerce and social activity did not sit well with senior clergy in England’s Catholic Church.
At least six bishops have questioned the decision to ban public acts of worship from Thursday, including the president and vice-president of the Bishops’ Conference.
Almost as soon as the government published its guidance to Lockdown 2.0 — scheduled to go into effect on Thursday, 5 November — Cardinal Vincent Nichols (Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales) issued a statement in which Archbishop Malcolm McMahon (CBCEW vice-president) joined him, questioning the reasoning behind the decision.
“[W]e have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combatting the virus,” they said. “We ask the government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship.” They also noted the “vital role” that faith communities play in “in sustaining personal, spiritual and mental health and encouraging vital charitable activities”.
The following morning, Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth each wrote open letters to the Prime Minister calling on him to change his mind on public worship, while Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury issued a strongly-worded statement saying he was “astonished” at the new restrictions. He pointed out that the Prime Minister had failed even to mention places of worship in his statement on Saturday evening and warned that public worship can never be “dismissed as something non-essential”.
Meanwhile, Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark wrote to his clergy urging them to tell their parishioners to contact their MPs before the legislation is debated in the House of Commons.
By Monday afternoon, the three most senior clerics in the Church of England were also urging the government to rethink its decision, saying the sacramental life “cannot be seen as an optional extra”.
This all stands in stark contrast to March, when bishops complied with the first lockdown without question. So what’s different this time?
At the start of the pandemic, we knew much less about how the virus spreads and churches did not have social distancing and sanitisation measures in place. Now they do, and there has subsequently been little to no evidence of Covid-19 spreading in places of worship that stick to the guidelines. The decision to ban public worship again therefore seems mystifying at best, and at worst ill-informed, tokenistic and arbitrary.
The bishops will also remember how Catholics grew increasingly frustrated as the last lockdown went on, and the severe impact on diocesan finances. There’s every reason to avoid a repeat if possible, and the government’s scant evidence does not establish that the suspension of public worship in the presence of the faithful is in any pertinent sense necessary.
It remains to be seen if the government will reconsider. Given its recent history of u-turns, it’s certainly possible. If they don’t, however, what will the bishops do next? The tone of their messages suggests they will obey the regulations regardless, but there will be much resentment from priests and laypeople.
Meanwhile, the government’s regard for religious worship is about as amply evidenced as the need effectively to suspend it. That Boris Johnson didn’t even bother mentioning it in Saturday evening’s speech won’t have helped relations with religious leaders. It will take a lot to rebuild trust, but some sign of willingness to reconsider the decision would be a good start.