Bishop of Winchester protests Government suspension of public worship

On 4th November 2020 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020. The Regulations introduce a second coronavirus lockdown in England, including the susp0ension of public worship. The Bishop of Winchester responded:

The Lord Bishop of Winchester [V]: My Lords, I am grateful to Her Majesty’s Government for seeking to ensure that the appropriate measures are in place to protect the most vulnerable and restrict the spread of this virus. It is important that we do not prolong such stringent lockdown measures because of the way that they impact on the mental, physical and, indeed, spiritual well-being of the population. However, I will not be supporting the fatal Motion. I recognise the exceptional nature of these times, and welcome that the regulations will enable places of worship to remain open for private prayer and broadcasting acts of worship. Creating such broadcast acts of worship often requires a team of people, both amateurs and professionals. I would welcome more clarity from the Minister on the number of people allowed to do this.

Clergy across the country have worked hard to ensure that our church buildings are Covid-secure for public worship, education settings, food banks and other essential services. In most places, by distancing and limiting congregation sizes, communal worship can safely take place without the need for an outright ban.

Religious worship is not a leisure activity: the freedom to worship and to assemble for this purpose is a right that we enjoy in this country and strongly advocate for in other countries.

The law will be adhered to, but I hope that the Prime Minister and the Government have understood from the united response of faith leaders yesterday that legal and safe acts of public worship are not things to be switched on and off by government regulation. Many have already asked this, but I will reiterate: can the Minister commit to providing the scientific evidence to justify such a suspension? The impact of this suspension will be felt publicly.

On Remembrance Sunday, a day in the year that is hugely significant for so many veterans and their families and for the whole country, our commemoration services will now be severely limited. Furthermore, ​over the next few weeks, important religious festivals for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and the Jewish community will be disrupted by the lack of access to communal worship. I regret this. Faith groups serve the needs of their local communities, and clergy and healthcare chaplains provide significant support for the mental, social and spiritual well-being of the nation. Public worship is essential for spiritual and mental well-being, and a source of strength to many. It is not an optional extra for the Christian faith: our weekly worship services are part of a whole way of life. The importance of this must not go unrecognised. It is in drawing on their Christian faith and in the hope that Christmas brings that the Archbishops say in their letter to the nation today that it would help the whole nation if we adopted a “calm, courageous and compassionate” response to this trial.

Baroness Altmann (Con): I do not believe that these regulations had been sufficiently broadly considered. They are not based on rigorous analysis. For example, there is no evidence to suggest that banning communal worship will impact the spread of the virus, especially after churches, synagogues and other religious venues have spent so much to ensure that they are Covid safe, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester rightly said.

Lord Cormack (Con): On the subject of churches, we had a perfectly benign but totally unsatisfactory Answer yesterday to my noble friend Lord Moylan’s Question from my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh. He was not able to produce a single shred of evidence to suggest that it was unsafe to go to a place of worship. Yesterday, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Westminster, other leading Anglicans, the Chief Rabbi and many other faith leaders wrote to the Prime Minister spelling out how important it was to keep open places of worship for public worship. We have had no answer. I say to my noble friend that the House has every right to demand a proper answer. Where is his evidence to justify this draconian step, for that is what it is? We should resist it if we possibly can…. If you are expecting people to obey orders, you should make orders that you can justify; you should not alienate normally law-abiding people such as those who play golf or go to churches and synagogues. You should not alienate them, because the price you will pay as a Government will be a very large price indeed. I rest my case.

Lord Moylan (Con): My Lords, I shall be voting with the Government tonight, conscious of the many concerns expressed by noble Lords, not least those recently expressed by my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lady Altmann about the complete absence of evidence that the Government can produce for the ban on collective worship. We are at a point where something must be done and this is the only option in front of us…

Lord Balfe (Con): My Lords, this is not the first time I have said in this Chamber that the Government need to fundamentally rethink their position. We are asked to believe that the rate can be pushed down by closing churches, John Lewis, bookshops, gyms and swimming pools but leaving open Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op.

Baroness Jolly (LibDem): Our local church congregation has spent some considerable time ensuring that distanced worship is possible, and I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester about championing public worship and the need to keep open churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and gurdwaras.

Lord Bethell (Con) [Minister]: Most powerful and emphatic was the point on freedom to worship, which my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Moylan, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, all raised. It is a very touching and important issue. I am happy to take it back to look into it further and, if possible, seek some sort of mitigation.

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