Holy Smoke

Is it time for Christianity to go underground?

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Boris Johnson's package of Covid restrictions announced this week included a rule that weddings will be limited to 15 people and funerals to 30 – numbers plucked out of thin air that will have questionable effect on the transmission of the virus.

You might think that a ruling that affects only weddings and funerals isn't such a big deal for the churches, but that is to underestimate the fanatical zeal of their leaders for implementing, and expanding, restrictions on their own worship. The control-freak Archbishop of Canterbury, predictably, seemed quite thrilled by the government's intervention.

My own reaction, informed by conversations with many clergy outraged by their bishops' baffling willingness to accept any curtailment of church life, was to wonder whether some Christians will be forced to 'go underground' – that is, find a way of worshipping that quietly disobeys their own leaders. To an extent this is already happening: at the height of the pandemic, Catholics were holding secret Masses that reminded me of their ancestors' defiance of Protestant penal laws. I didn't report it because I didn't want them hunted down by their own 'fathers in God', the local bishops.

So that's the subject of this week's Holy Smoke, a very wide-ranging conversation with Dr Gavin Ashenden of the sort that you would never hear on the BBC.