The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has joined a host of other faith leaders in calling for the government to permit public worship during the upcoming lockdown in England.
The group letter, which included signatures from the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London, insisted that public worship plays a vital role in supporting social cohesion and mental health, and will offer “an essential sign of hope” at this most difficult time.
The letter lays out the fact that church services are now Covid-19 secure, and thus not a threat to public health. "We have demonstrated, by our action, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from Covid transmission," it reads. "Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship."
While the group admits that the country is facing "significant challenges," they insist that closing down places of public worship is not the right decision.
"We strongly disagree with the decision to suspend public worship during this time," the letter continues. "We have had 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 argue that the continuation of public worship is "essential" if the church is to keep meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of those affected by the Covid-19 crisis.
"During the first period of restrictions, we ceased public worship in our buildings. We moved much online, and we have provided significant resource to support our communities and our nation, from practical support such as foodbanks and volunteering, to promoting social cohesion, mental health and coping during these months," it reads. "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 energised 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."
The group added that worshipping together is "core to our identity and an essential aspect of sustaining our mission and our activity" and is also "necessary to sustain the health and wellbeing of faith community members engaged in caring for others whether paid or voluntary".
It continues: "Much has been made of the adverse impact on mental health of volunteer and paid carers during this pandemic. Common Worship is an important way of sustaining the wellbeing, and ability to serve, of people of faith who volunteer. The benefits of public worship are scientifically well attested.
"For this reason alone, given the size and duration of the contribution of faith communities to the pandemic response, and the importance of sustaining their commitment and wellbeing, public worship is essential, should be classed by government as necessary and supported to continue. It enables and sustains people of faith in contributing to the service and health of our nation."
The letter also cites the mental health benefits of attending public worship:
"The health benefits of attending worship are well known, and the burden of psychological and physical ill-health from isolation and during the pandemic are increasingly well understood.
"This is especially so for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people. Public Health England’s own review found that faith communities were an important connect for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people during this period. Moreover, it is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon that people turn to faith communities as a way of coping with trauma and grief.
"This is the common experience of faith communities in England during COVID and especially since communal worship restarted. People are turning to faith communities, not just in our social care services but during public worship, as a way of coping with their sense of trauma, grief and loss.
"The public mental health impact of this has been significant, and it provides an important way of supporting the nation without overburdening NHS and other mental health services. Public Worship provides an important sign that faith communities are there for people. We believe this must be regarded by government as essential."
Finally, the group — which included the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf, Chair of The British Board of Scholars and Imams — contested that public worship brings hope to so many.
"The psychological impact of uncertainty, restriction and the impact of the infection is increasingly well studied," they wrote. "We know that people seek signs of normality to help them make sense of restrictions and major change and disruption to their lives. We also know that where people see others act with hope and purpose that we will recover from disasters and traumas; this gives them hope and encouragement too.
"From a social psychological perspective, faith communities who consistently embody behaviours and attitudes that are covid-19 safe and hopeful provide encouragement to others through modelling these behaviours and attitudes. They are part of the journey to recovery.
"Public worship is therefore an essential sign that we can find new ways of living with Covid-19 until the vaccine is found, and part of the psychological and social cohesion needed to exit restriction measures. Public worship should therefore be supported to continue.
"Government is making decisions about what aspects of our life during this period of restrictions are essential.
"We believe we have demonstrated that continuation of public worship is essential, for all the reasons we have set out above. We call on government to recognise and support this, and enable us to continue to worship safely, as part of the essential fabric of the nation."