The call to allow services in the run-up to Christmas comes as concerns mount about the impact of anti-coronavirus measures on the freedom to worship. Under present rules churches in England can only open for individual prayer, funerals of no more than 30 people and to provide a small number of strictly defined activities. The Church of England argues that churches can safely run Covid-secure services and have a key role to play in bringing “comfort and hope” to people in the midst of the pandemic. MPs from the Conservative, SNP and DUP parties have secured a debate on the impact on religious liberty of the pandemic next week.
A Church of England spokesman said: “The huge challenges of the coronavirus pandemic are a fresh reminder of how much we need public worship, not least for its role in supporting social cohesion and mental health and providing a sign of hope. Particularly as we approach Advent, at the end of a year like no other, the message of Christmas – of God with us and of light shining in the darkness – is needed more than ever.
“Public worship, including Christmas services, will have a crucial role to play in bringing comfort and hope to people. Churches and other places of worship have proven already they can take necessary steps to make their buildings Covid-secure and so we are confident that public worship can and should recommence from December 3.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May is among MPs who worry that a dangerous precedent has been set by stopping services. Earlier this month she warned the Commons that “making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a Government in future with the worst of intentions”.
The Christian Legal Centre is supporting a legal challenge against the ban on worship services brought by 122 church leaders.
Chief executive Andrea William said: “In the face of a crisis the answer is not to shut down churches that provide the safe havens in our communities across the nations of the United Kingdom. Churches are often the glue that holds our communities together; often places where the most vulnerable in our society and those hurting from Covid find community and hope.
“To shut the churches is to shut the places of refuge and rescue in our society. We call on the government to recognise the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state.
“Church is so much more than a place for individual prayer. It is a place for prayer ministry, sacraments, gathered worship, fellowship, and corporate prayer and intercession. The Government should not be preventing these vital ministries.”
The Rev Matthew Roberts of Trinity Church in York said: “For a nation which is trying to preserve life to ban people from worshipping, hearing from and praying to the one who gives life and restores life is folly of the highest order. It also overturns centuries of the laws, values and traditions of the whole of the UK.”
The campaigning group Christian Concern argues there is “clear discrimination” and insists there is “no evidence that Covid-compliant public worship has contributed to spreading the disease in the UK”.
More than 1,500 church leaders have now signed an open letter to Boris Johnson objecting to the prohibition on worship.
A Government spokesman said: “The Government doesn’t take imposing further restrictions lightly but this action is vital in tackling the spread of the virus. Places of worship bring huge solace and comfort to people, especially during this challenging time.
“That is why they remain open during this period of new restrictions for private prayer and other vital functions like funerals. We continue to work closely with senior faith leaders and the Places of Worship Taskforce, as we have throughout the pandemic.”