“That the Church of England shall be free, and shall have all her whole Rights and Liberties inviolable.
There are few clauses of Magna Carta that are still in force today. Most have been whittled away by the stultifying hands of generations of bureaucrats. But one clause still stands in its in 800-year-old majesty: that the Church of England shall be free. (I realise that my Roman Catholic readers might quibble about what was meant by the Church of England in 1217, but I ask you to bear with me).
Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of a free people. It stands at the heart of every declaration and charter of rights. It should be dispensed with only under the gravest of circumstances and with the heaviest of hearts.
These may indeed be such grave circumstances. In March almost everyone agreed that the circumstances were sufficiently worrisome that public worship should be suspended and that churches should be closed to the public — despite the desperate desire of so many for the comfort and solace that places of prayer might offer them in a pandemic. The bishops of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, every other denomination, and the leaders of every other religion supported the government in its unprecedented suspension of liberty, and in many cases went further than the government demanded.
As the first lockdown was eased that support was not repaid. Religion was classed as a ‘leisure activity’ and we found ourselves reopening after car showrooms, garden centres, and the Premier League.
This casual disregard for one of the most basic freedoms guaranteed to the English people has been continued during the second lockdown. Although Robert Peston was briefed that public worship would be banned while private prayer in churches would continue to be legal, the Prime Minister forgot to mention this in his statement.
This is a pity, as the decision to revoke one of the surviving clauses of Magna Carta, to suspend one of the key rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be taken with a heavy heart and only after detailed explanation as to why no alternative was possible. There has been no evidence presented that churches, which have gone out of their way to make their places of worship safe since being allowed to reopen in June, are more dangerous than supermarkets or other activities defined as essential.
This is not just a question of rights. Or, rather, it’s important to understand what lies behind the almost universal recognition that freedom to worship, as our faiths demand, is such a crucial liberty in a free society. The worship of God is life-giving and transformational, it informs who we are at our very core. For those who believe, it is the very opposite of inessential — in the most literal meaning of the word ‘essential’ — It is of our essence.
There are all sorts of activities that the government likes churches doing: operating foodbanks, creating credit unions, looking after the homeless. The Big Society in action. A report last month put a figure on the value to the economy of this charitable activity — it was £12.4 billion. But this good work does not come out of nowhere. It comes bubbling up from the worship that we share together. It is the vital overflowing of a love that grows and builds among people who pray together.
And at the core of that worship is communion. The physical act of eating and (in happier times) drinking. It was one of the few explicit commands Christ gave us — alongside loving one another as he has loved us. By eating the body of Christ (however you want, theologically, to describe that), we become more Christ-like. This isn’t an inessential act for a Christian, it is the core act of a Christian. It is essential.
Boris Johnson is a Conservative Prime Minister. He is also an instinctive Tory. I hope that he will remember his essence and fight, as any good Tory should, that the Church should be free — that the people committed to his charge by the Queen (who promised at her coronation ‘to maintain and preserve inviolably… the worship' of the Church) should be free to worship their gods as our rights and liberties have always afforded us. And if we can’t, because the risk is just too great, to explain properly why not, and to pledge to restore this basic liberty as soon as possible — not as an adjunct to ‘other leisure activities.’