Over the weekend, more than a hundred religious figures from across the different faiths launched a legal challenge against the ban on communal worship in England. They claim the Covid restrictions are a violation of their basic human right to freedom of religious expression. Leaders from the Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain, are in agreement on how unfair they view the ban. It's difficult to think of a cogent argument against their position.
For background, I am an atheist. Raised in a Catholic family, I never truly believed, even as a small child. Atheism has been something that has been with me throughout my whole life. Yet the argument that those of faith should be allowed the freedom of communal worship is compelling. These are the four key points to the thesis.
First, Christian masses are not large-scale events these days. In most Anglican churches, communion is attended by a small yet committed group of people who congregate inside of an old, large building. The idea that they couldn’t socially distance during a service is palpably absurd. Given social distancing between parishioners seems completely doable, it is difficult to see how communal worship is still considered a serious health risk, at least when compared to the many activities still allowed. The CofE is particularly well-endowed when it comes to the size of its buildings, more so than other religions in England. Either way, why not allow communal worship on the proviso that social distancing can be maintained?
Second, taking into account point one above, it begins to look prejudicial against people of faith given the centrality of religion in the lives of many people. There have been legitimate worries about the population’s mental health during repeated waves of severe Covid restrictions. The fortitude of English worshipers would be greatly aided by attending mass or whatever communal service is central to their faith.
Third, communal services are allowed in Scotland, Northern Ireland and (at least, for now) in Wales. In Scotland, it is in fact a major exception to the ban on any mass gatherings whatsoever. This means that England is alone in the United Kingdom in instituting a complete ban on communal worship. This fact all by itself makes the restriction seem disproportionate. If all the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom have figured out a way to make this possible, why can’t it be done in England as well?
Fourth, there are only so many lines over which the Conservatives can tread before they cease being an actual conservative party — and they are already pretty near that point already. While the past few years have seen the party distance itself from almost every institution it once held dear — the House of Lords, the BBC, the civil service — it might not be such a great time to sever ties with the state religion. To be clear, this is not an argument to end restrictions on only Anglican worship; it would have to be opened up for all faiths. Yet given Anglicanism is the largest religion in the UK, lifting the ban on communal worship would benefit the Church of England more than any other faith. In this time of great Tory shake-up, remembering this bit of who they are couldn’t hurt.
To reiterate, I have no skin in this particular game, other than to say that I think that freedom of religious expression is important for everyone — in a sense, perhaps atheists most of all. When the first lockdown occurred, it was clear the government took every possible step to try and keep infection rates down and that included a restriction on communal religious services. We now know a lot more about how to shelter ourselves from Covid-19 infection, leading to services being allowed again in every part of the UK — except for England.
It feels like religious gatherings have become the victim of either over or underthinking within the Westminster government. Let people back into their places of worship to attend collective worship once again, whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or anything else. Under the condition of social distancing, fine, but let it happen immediately.