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More than 500 UK pastors plea with PM and first ministers to not close churches again

by Tola Mbakwe

More than 500 UK church leaders have called on the Prime Minister and the First Ministers of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland not to close churches again as we face a tightening of coronavirus restrictions. 

In an open letter, they say public Christian worship is essential for our nation's wellbeing. 

They warned "increasingly severe restrictions are having a dehumanising effect on people's lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health".

Rev Paul Levy, minister at International Presbyterian Church Ealing, co-wrote the letter and told Premier it was necessary to send this message to UK leaders even though there haven't been any indications churches will be impacted by new coronavirus restrictions.

"I think because we had the shutdown before, we felt that it was good to be proactive rather than always reactive," he said. 

"The role of the Church is also to speak to the State at times, and we're to submit to the authorities, we're to pray for leaders. But we're also to bring the claims of Christ to bear on our national leaders, for their good and for us."

The letter states that churches have and will still maintain proper hygiene in buildings and therefore present a "hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all". 

It adds that banning public worship in churches would cause "serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers".

The letter was published on Tuesday, the same day Boris Johnson warned new coronavirus restrictions could last six months, with office staff working from home, the wider use of face masks and a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.

He said that the new curbs could continue well beyond Christmas and New Year "unless we palpably make progress" in controlling the spread of the virus.

The Prime Minister also announced tougher enforcement measures, with businesses facing fines or closure for failing to comply with coronavirus rules, and people facing £200 penalties for failing to wear masks where required or breaching the so-called "rule of six".

Stricter rules have already been introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where households are now banned from mixing.  

Rev Levy told Premier the Government must find solutions to stopping the spread of Covid-19 that don't negatively impact churches like it did his church six months ago.

"There was a great fuss of being online and how great it was, and that lasted about two weeks," he said

"It [church closures] affected our ability to care for one another, to encourage one another in the Christian life. Some of our most vulnerable people we were not able to see, not able to care for, ministries were not able to take place. So thankfully, the congregation worked really hard at doing things online. But there's lots of people that have kind of slipped out the back door. That's been really discouraging."

Here's the letter:

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life. 

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring 'life in all its fullness'. Therefore we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people's lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whether the UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society - physically and spiritually - than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation's wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain, very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting those who truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Listen to Premier's full interview with Rev Paul Levy here: 

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