Thank God for Christian Concern, the Christian Legal Centre, and the intrepid Andrea Minichiello Williams. No-one else seemed to care about the SNP’s ban on church worship – at least not sufficiently to pour in the necessary £1000s and risk a liability of £10,000s should the case have been lost. But Christian Concern stepped in to support 27 Protestant ministers from the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) and the Church of Scotland inter alia, and one Roman Catholic priest (who joined the action late) in order to challenge the SNP’s closure of Scottish churches during the Covid-19 pandemic, which effectively criminalised gathered church worship (and, indeed, all corporate worship of all gods, though other faith leaders weren’t overly concerned – at least not sufficiently to pour in the necessary £1000s and risk a liability of £10,000s should the case have been lost).
Christian Concern won a significant victory, not least because they have clarified the limitations on the State in respect of the Church: politicians have neither the power nor the right to prohibit Christians gathering for worship – not even during a global pandemic.
In the Court of Session, Lord Braid was scathing in his judgment. He ruled that it is not for Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP, or, indeed, any Scottish Ministers of the Crown to “dictate to the petitioners or to the additional party, that, henceforth, or even for the duration of the pandemic, worship is to be conducted on-line. That might be an alternative to worship but it is not worship. At very best for the respondents, in modern parlance, it is worship-lite.”
During the judicial review on the 11th-12th March, Janys Scott QC, representing the Scottish church leaders, argued that the pandemic had highlighted an “irreconcilable conflict” for church leaders between obeying the State and God. “Church leaders do not lightly take to law” she told the court. “My note of argument makes no apology for starting with a statement — and that is Jesus is Lord because that encapsulates the issue as far as the petitioners are concerned.” She expounded the essential theological and soteriological imperative:
As Christians their primary obedience is to God and not to the state and there is a fundamental obedience in regular communal public worship. Regular communal public worship is a central part of the Christian’s life of faith and of the church’s being. And to be absolutely clear this is not about buildings — it’s about assembly of congregations; the sacraments of communion and baptism and the ministry between members of a church are integral aspects of expression on what it is to be a Christian and to belong to a Christian church. The petitioners would say that faith is a matter of hope in life and in death and it’s more than mere obedience and that it is essential particularly at a time of national crisis.
She accused John Swinney, the SNP Deputy First Minister, of holding a “condescending and inaccurate” attitude towards public worship, by treating churches as if they are a “matter of personal welfare or comfort”:
The Deputy First Minister does not understand. The primary purpose for worship is not for social or mental well-being. Public worship is a robust central aspect of the practice of the Christian both individually and as a church. It is important because that it is no exaggeration to say that over the centuries Christians have died in the defence of the public worship in the church and Christians continue to die in the defence of the public worship in church.
By ordering that the churches be closed, there arose “an irreconcilable conflict between the obedience of the Christian church to their God or God and obedience to the state” which breached not only the Constitution of the State, but also the European Convention on Human Rights: “It’s not for the government to question the legitimacy of beliefs or the manner in which they are expressed, she said. “The petitioners say that public corporate worship is essential to the church — it is of the essence, of the being of the church and that is a matter for them.”
And then she attacked the Nicola Sturgeon’s double-speak:
Without wanting to resort to hyperbole, what is worryingly insidious about the way this has been presented to us politically is, ‘oh no, we haven’t closed your churches’ – and that’s in the face of a regulation that says places of public worship will be closed. That’s what the First Minister said and that’s what’s been said in the course of argument for the Scottish Ministers. When one starts using double-speak like that one gets to exactly the issue which Article 9 is designed to forfend. I’m saying this from the perspective of a group of ministers and church elders who want to defend their right to worship, but it is there as an underlying point which is protected for good reason by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Andrea Williams explains why this must never be allowed to happen again:
Over centuries, Christian worship has been regarded as a fundamental freedom in the nations of the United Kingdom. During this pandemic, for the first time in history, our governments chose to criminalise gathered church worship. We are thankful and relieved that the High Court in Scotland has recognised this dangerous interference with our God given right to engage in worship for exactly what it is, and ruled it unconstitutional. The fundamental principle of freedom has prevailed with a strong dash of good old common sense.
Would to God that such common sense and a love of freedom had prevailed in the Church of England over the past year.