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Local councils in England accused of 'pressuring' churches to stop public worship

by Marcus Jones

It's emerged that churches in England are getting conflicting guidance on whether to open for corporate worship.

When the national lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister earlier this week, there was a clear exception given to places of worship. In the guidance, published online, the government states: "You can attend places of worship for a service. However, you must not mingle with anyone outside of your household or support bubble. You should maintain strict social distancing at all times."

This week, however, church leaders from across the country have been receiving letters from local councils and public health bodies asking or "strongly encouraging" them to move their services online.

While these requests are asking for a "voluntary" closure of buildings, they have no legal weight and no church can face consequences. Some have suggested leaders are being unfairly pressured.

A letter sent to places of worship in Ealing, signed by council leader Julian Bell, states: "Given this very worrying situation and the urgent need to reduce infection rates and protect the NHS, I am urging all places of worship to voluntarily agree to go beyond the legal restrictions imposed by the government. 

"Acts of communal worship remain legal, but I am asking that Ealing's places of worship make the voluntary step to go further and close for communal worship and individual prayer."

Similar letters have been received by churches in Essex, Lancashire and Bath.

Rev Pastor Ade Omooba (MBE), co-founder of Christian Concern, said: "It is clear that In England, the decision on whether to hold public worship is now in the hands of church leaders, which we have campaigned for since last March. Although it is good for churches and local government to dialogue, it is inappropriate for councils to put pressure on churches to stop meeting as if it is their decision to make.

"Churches throughout the UK have demonstrated their responsibility - and indeed their safety - throughout the pandemic. It is right that church leaders continue to be trusted to decide if and how to meet, given their local circumstances and the needs of their members. They are also the heartbeat of many communities, providing vital support for vulnerable people through foodbanks and other services throughout the pandemic.

"We ask Christians to pray for and support all church leaders and their congregations in the crucial days, weeks and months ahead. May they be given wisdom and courage to responsibly honour and worship God and love their neighbours at this challenging time."

Peter Thomas is minister of North Springfield Baptist Church in Chelmsford Essex, where there has been a rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases, he told Premier he hopes faith leaders will take notice of the advice from medical professionals: "I've had some discussions with ministers who were saying they will entirely respect the call not to hold public worship. They still want to open up, for some of the support groups, that they may be running, Alcoholics Anonymous, drug support groups, for example. That will have to be their call. But I hope that all will take very seriously the possible risks of an infection spreading through such a group meeting on church premises, I think that would be a very sad situation to arise."

Many church leaders have already made the decision to close for public worship.

Writing on the Premier Christianity blog, Carl Beech, who leads Edge Ministries and Redeemer King Church in Chesterfield outlined why he wouldn't be holding corporate gatherings with witness being one reason.

"If my church became known as a 'super-spreader' and people died, it would affect gospel witness for many years to come," he said.

In other parts of the UK, churches have had different levels of restrictions. While public worship is permitted in Northern Ireland, the leaders of the four biggest denominations have decided to close buildings after speaking with the country's chief medical office. In Scotland, churches are banned from hosting in-person services, while in Wales churches can open their doors.

Premier has asked the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government for a statement and is waiting for a response.

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