We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and the law of the land is clear: “no person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place outdoors, and consists of more than six persons, or indoors, and consists of two or more persons.” There is no restriction on the reason for gathering, but social distancing of 2m must be maintained. “There is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other.”
New guidance for the police is also clear: “A person may now leave and remain outside of the place where they live for any reason, subject to restrictions on gatherings and overnight stays.” So yesterday’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ gathering in London, in protest against the alleged murder of George Floyd in the US, was illegal. Further, there wasn’t much social distancing going on:
How exactly do you test, track and trace that lot? Not easily, one presumes. It will be an imminent burden for trackers and tracers, and a likely immense future burden for the NHS. Nevertheless, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu thinks this was just ‘FANTABULOUS’. It isn’t yet clear what the Bishops of Leeds, Manchester and Durham make of their Archbishop’s incitement to break the lockdown law, or, indeed, of his breaking the law himself with that incitment. His tweet refers to a “small” protest outside York Minster, but if there were more than six (and there was), the gathering was illegal, socially-distanced or not.
We do know what the Rev’d Canon Dr Robin Ward makes of the Archbishop’s exhortation:
Canon Ward is Head of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, but his objection went over the Archbishop’s head:
Archbishop Sentamu appears to believe that mass protest in England is lawful provided the motive is right (justice, not BAME-lauding), and provided social distancing regulations are adhered to.
It is not: the law is clear. Gatherings of more than six people outside are illegal, and where six people gather from different households, social-distancing regulations must be adhered to between them.
But this law didn’t stop Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who was, up until a few months ago, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade:
The hypocrisy is jaw-dropping. A few weeks ago there was uproar from Labour MPs and a whole bench of Bishops about Dominic Cummings allegedly breaching lockdown regulations, yet here is a Labour MP signalling his manifest pride to the whole world for having done so – apparently because ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a just motive. Crowds of angry Britons from every racial group can breach lockdown regulations and pour onto the streets to protest against racial injustice and police brutality in the USA, but one man may not drive from London to Durham to arrange the right kind of childcare for his son. What will the Bishop of Leeds teach his children?
What is the moral question for Keir Starmer? Does he find Barry Gardiner’s behaviour acceptable? What says the Bishop of Manchester?
Is he going to demand clear repentance from Barry Gardiner? Is he going to demand his deselection as an MP? Is he going to make Church of England cooperation with any future Labour government contingent on Barry Gardiner not being in Parliament?
What say the Bishops of Liverpool, Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle, Worcester, Willesden, Sheffield, Reading, Truro, Ripon and Penrith about a Labour MP blatantly flouting lockdown regulations? This is a question of fundamental trust, isn’t it? It’s a matter of life and death, isn’t it? And BAME people are statistically more likely to contract the coronavirus and die of it, aren’t they? Isn’t Barry Gardiner’s participation in a predominantly black protest endangering their lives? Does his virtue-signalling justify breaking the law? As a responsible father, what will the Bishop of Leeds teach his children? Situation ethics? Brexit-Tory advisor evil; Remainer-Labour MP good? Or it’s okay because the Archbishop of York bestows his blessing, and “standing up to racism” trumps public health legislation during a global pandemic?
As observed last week in the wake of episcopal chorus on Dominic Cummings: “The chiefest problem with the Bishops’ intervention in this matter is that they have now established a touchstone, and so we eagerly await their next robust intervention in unison, so that we may discern the theo-political priorities of their ministries.” We can perhaps discern even more from their silence and disregard.