As England shutters for a second time this year in an attempt to control COVID-19, churches claim they should be allowed to safely serve people. In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the faith leaders raised "profound concerns" over mounting restrictions.
While they expressed empathy for those who have been impacted by the virus and for the dilemmas faced by government officials, the faith leaders presented themselves as educated and well able to maintain safety for those wishing to personally attend services.
"In the last six months, we have collaborated closely with ministers and officials to keep people safe," they said in the letter, noting regular practices like social distancing. They cite the lack of "good quality scientific and medical evidence" to include churches in the shutdown.
"We have demonstrated, by our actions, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from COVID transmission. Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship."
The ministers who signed the letter represent various groups and included archbishops, bishops, pastors and a rabbi.
The letter was sent less than a week after Johnson announced a four-week national lockdown across England. Regardless, the churches are closed. They are being required to post notices on their doors about the closures and how people can access assistance virtually.
Like in the United States, churches in England have been categorized as "nonessential," alongside pubs, restaurants and gyms.
"We understand entirely that the country faces significant challenges and the reasons behind the government's decision to bring in new measures," the faith leaders said. "But we strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time. We have reaffirmed, through the bitter experience of the last six months, the critical role that faith plays in moments of tremendous crisis, and we believe public worship is essential."
The letter goes on to list the various steps taken to ensure public safety at places of worship.
The U.K.'s chief scientific adviser has admitted that scientists working on the pandemic "haven't got good evidence" to justify imposing the new lockdown measures on churches. Instead, the government is creating a widespread approach it refers to as "packages," where the goal is to "interrupt individual activities" to limit interaction between people.
Whether transmission of the virus has occurred in places of worship hasn't been determined. The data has been called "weak" and anecdotal.
"So I think it should be a little bit careful about putting that out as a scientific fact, this is just reported behaviors," said U.K. chief medical officer professor Chris Whitty, according to Christian News.
Whitty went on to praise the faith community for its response to COVID-19 for being "extraordinarily responsible in the way they've tried to address this," noting that government officials cited outbreaks in other countries as the basis for including churches in the lockdown.
"During the first period of restrictions, we ceased public worship in our buildings," faith leaders continued. "We moved much online, and we have provided significant resources to support our communities and our nation, from practical support such as food banks and volunteering, to promoting social cohesion, mental health and coping during these months.
"But common worship is constitutive of our identity and essential for our self-understanding. Without the worshipping community, our social action and support cannot be energized and sustained indefinitely. Our commitment to care for others comes directly from our faith, which must be sustained and strengthened by our meeting together in common worship. Worshipping together is core to our identity and an essential aspect of sustaining our mission and our activity."
Regardless of detailing the mental well-being, social cohesion and spiritual support provided by the churches, they were included in the shutdown.
The closure is scheduled to last through Wednesday, Dec. 2. After that day, restrictions should be eased and regions may return to the previously enacted tiered system.
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