Polish Catholic Church London Police Good Friday
Freedom of Religion

When the police enter a church, storm the altar and shut down worship, a line has been crossed

How hard is it to remain socially-distanced in a large church building? How hard is it to sit in pews in ‘support bubbles’ and leave enough space in front and behind to protect neighbouring bubbles from your respiratory droplets? How hard is it to comply with Government guidelines to carry out a risk assessment, to encourage your congregation not to mingle, and to insist that everyone wear a mask?

‘Hands, face, space’ might be a bit of a drag, but that’s what thousands of churches and other places of worship are doing at the moment, and it really isn’t very difficult. It’s just a bit of a drag.

The video which has been circulating of the Good Friday service at Christ the King Polish Catholic Church in Balham has elicited an outpouring of solidarity and defiance. Certainly, the Met Police seem to be a bit heavy-handed and insensitive. It was Good Friday, after all; the holiest day of solemnity in the Liturgical Calendar. Would the police have stormed a Pesach service which some Jewish groups hold before the seder? Would they have halted the worship and expelled Jews from their synagogue? Would they have paused to consider how that might look to the world?

Would they storm a mosque during Eid, or would they politely remove their shoes and have a quiet word with the imam to ask worshippers to comply with the lockdown regulations? Why didn’t the police have a quiet word with the Priest, to ask him to remind his congregation of the regulations surrounding public acts of worship?

They did, apparently. In a statement following the media furore, they made it clear that the Priest of this Polish Catholic church invited them in to address the congregation:

At around 1700hrs on Friday, 2 April, officers were called to a report of crowds of people queuing outside a church in Balham High Road.

Officers attended and found a large number of people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced.

We are particularly concerned about the risk of transmission of the Covid-19 virus as a result of large indoor gatherings at which people are not socially distanced and some are not wearing masks. As such, officers made the decision that it was not safe for that particular service to continue.

Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, officers engaged with the priest outside the church and were invited inside to address the congregation. No fixed penalty notices were issued.

This was one of a series of numerous events taking place at the church over the Easter period. We are engaging with church authorities today and will continue to do so in the coming days.

Curiously, the church issued the following response:

On Good Friday, 2 April 2021, during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, at the time of the Adoration of the Cross, the police arrived at the door of our church at around 6pm.

We were not allowed to finish the celebration. The police officers found our liturgical assembly illegal, ordering everyone to leave our temple immediately or face a £200 fine for each parishioner present, or even arrest.

The faithful obeyed this order without objection.

We believe, however, that the police brutally exceeded their powers by issuing their warrant for no good reason, as all government requirements were met.

We believe municipal police officials have been misinformed about the current place of worship guidelines, claiming that the reason for their intervention is the continued ban on public celebration in places of worship in London due to the lockdown on 4 January 2021.

We regret that the rights of the faithful have been wronged on such an important day for every believer and that our worship has been profaned.

We informed the superiors of the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales about this incident. We asked the police authorities to explain the incident and we are waiting for their response.

It is curious because there is no denial that the police were invited in to address the congregation, or that the obvious place to do so was from behind the microphone at the altar. Is worship ‘profaned’ in a Polish Catholic church when the sacred act is interrupted by permission of the Priest?

The Chairman of the church subsequently added:

It was disgusting what they [the police] did. Good Friday is one of the most sacred days for us.

I feel sorry for the officers they actually didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know the law.

We know how many people we can let inside, we have people monitoring how many are in and the queue, as well as the distance between people.

We have signs and hand washing, it’s very safe. We have been doing this since we reopened after the first lockdown.

Why, then, did the Priest invite the police in? Why did he ask them to address the congregation directly?

And when the police did enter, is this what they saw, which is how worship in the church was arranged for Easter Day?

Polish Catholic church Balham

Polish Catholic church Balham

It sounds from the way the policeman spoke that this is not what they saw on Good Friday. He announced: “This gathering is unfortunately unlawful under the coronavirus regulations we have currently. I suggest, ladies and gentlemen, that though it is Good Friday, and I appreciate you would like to worship, that this gathering is unlawful, so please may you leave the building now. Thank you.”

He must have known that the gathering itself was not unlawful, ergo he must have had concerns about the lack of social distancing and the flouting of other lockdown guidance such as the wearing of masks. The YouTube video certainly shows maskless people mingling, and a line of children sitting quite cosily in a pew (presumably not all from the same family), which are quite clear breaches of the Covid regulations.

In shutting down an act of divine worship, a line was undoubtedly crossed. But it really isn’t hard to abide by the rules. It might be a bit of a drag – especially over the Easter Triduum – but it isn’t hard. And when worshippers don’t abide by the rules, and religious leaders aren’t overly concerned about enforcing them, it gives credence to those who call for all places of worship to be closed on public health grounds.