Disputes about religious liberty during the pandemic aren’t unique to the United States. In the United Kingdom, leaders from a range of faith traditions are challenging new shutdown orders and accusing the government of criminalizing public worship.
With Europe facing another spike in COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a national lockdown through December 2. Worship services are temporarily banned, with churches allowed to open only for private prayer, funerals, and essential services such as childcare, blood drives, and food pantries. Schools and offices remain open, but non-essential businesses, restaurants, and gyms are shuttered.
The UK has been setting new records for daily-infection rates, and Johnson, who’s had COVID-19 once, is currently under quarantine after being in close contact with a person who tested positive for the virus.
122 Faith Leaders Call Closures ‘unlawful’
With the backing of the Christian Legal Centre, an arm of Christian Concern, 122 UK faith leaders are requesting judicial review of the ban. The group—which includes officials from the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions—is taking legal action against the UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
In the complaint, leaders call communal worship “a core aspect of religious life” and say criminalizing such activity inflicts “a terrible human cost.” In a letter to Johnson, they write: “We understand entirely that the country faces significant challenges and the reasons behind the government’s decision to bring in new measures. But we strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time.” The “bitter experience” of the pandemic, they add, has reaffirmed “the critical role that faith plays in moments of tremendous crisis, and we believe public worship is essential.”
Faith leaders insist they’ve implemented safety measures, leaving “no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship.” They also point out that not even during the 1918 flu pandemic were “such extensive and ongoing restrictions” imposed on religious practice.
In response, a government spokesperson says imposing tight restrictions isn’t taken lightly but “is vital in tackling the spread of the virus.” Before the new lockdown was ordered, more than 1,500 UK church leaders had urged Johnson to let houses of worship stay open. Under the ban, churches can face fines for violating restrictions.
Faith Leaders Emphasize Church Autonomy
Pastor Ade Omooba, a co-founder of Christian Concern, is spearheading the legal effort, which he labels a last option. “We call on the government to recognize the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state,” he says. Even though churches “provide many essential services to their members” and to local communities, says Omooba, they “can’t be relegated to a social service.” Because churches also minister to the soul, the pastor says, they’re “the very last thing that should be closed”—and then “only with their agreement in times of dire emergency for a very short time.”
The Rev. David Hathaway, president of Eurovision Mission to Europe, says UK officials have “failed to recognize the centrality of faith to a Christian’s life.” He adds that “worship and access to church buildings has been treated like a mere hobby or pastime rather than foundational to national and Christian life.”
Michael Nazir-Ali, a former Church of England bishop, notes, “There is widespread unease among many church leaders about the lack of evidence and consultation regarding the ban on collective worship.” The act of gathering, he adds, isn’t “an optional extra” but “vital to the mental and spiritual health of believers, especially for the lonely and vulnerable.”