“Could the Minister advise those of us on these benches,” ventured Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, “how we should respond to clergy who took an enormous personal toll in having to deal with families who were not able to attend funerals, not able to be with their loved ones, and were very tempted to break the rules for strong pastoral reason and didn’t, and now are faced with this?”
The ‘this’ is the revelation that on 20th May 2020, while wives couldn’t hold their dying husbands and sons could see their dying fathers, and mourning wives and sons could only get Zoom compassion from their priests and were allowed only half-a-dozen mourners on the conveyor-belt of cremations, Boris Johnson was partying in his Downing Street garden at a “bring your own booze” gathering for 100 or so staff, in order to make the most of the lovely weather.
The rest of the country was limited to one guest in their gardens (if they had a garden), and people were urged to spy on their neighbours and phone the police to report anything that remotely resembled a party. It is understood that 40 or so of the invitees attended, including the Prime Minister and his wife Carrie. He insists he thought it was a work event, and considered the No.10 garden an extension of his office, but it’s a curious type of work where you not only take booze and eat nibbles, but also bring your wife.
On 20th May 20 2020, the then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the public at a press briefing: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two metres apart.” The ‘rule of six’ outdoors wasn’t brought in until a month later, and large gatherings (which 40 surely constitutes) remained banned.
Boris Johnson apologised in Parliament yesterday, and reiterated (seven times) that this is now the subject of a thorough inquiry by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, whose report is likely to conclude that the gathering was indeed against lockdown rules at the time, but the Prime Minister genuinely thought it was a work event.
Just like he said.
In a sense, the report doesn’t matter. The perception is unmistakably one of ‘It’s one rule for Boris Johnson and another rule for the rest of us’: he could party at his place while people were dying and grieving alone. It’s the hypocrisy of it all that stinks.
Beleaguered clergy were grappling with doing pastoral care via Zoom, or faced being sacked for daring to hug the grieving, sing hymns without a mask, or place Bibles on church pews. Pastoral care in a cold climate is challenging at the best of times: during a global pandemic and a national lockdown it is exceedingly difficult, and worship nigh impossible. You try singing ‘Thine be the Glory’ through a surgical mask.
Clergy who failed to take appropriate account of Covid-19 regulations, Government guidance or Church of England guidance faced a swift CDM (Clergy Discipline Measure). As the Bishop of Leeds makes clear, it must have been very tempting to serve the community with love and humility, to fulfil their essential mission, which is to minister to people. It must have been heartrending to be denied rapport with individuals, households and communities, especially at the symbolic milestones of life; the rites of passage that the Church sanctifies through her occasional offices. Clergy must have been distraught to be denied that engagement at the level of personal, familial and communal faith, which provides the platform and spiritual power-base for the Church’s mission in terms of civil society.
What a shame, then, it was for the Archbishop of Canterbury to exacerbate the agony by imposing regulations on clergy beyond those demanded by government, and prohibiting clergy from entering their own churches even alone. At the moment of the nation’s greatest pastoral need since the end of the Second World War, the Church of England severed its links with the population and responded to their spiritual longings with bolted doors.
Shortly before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the Bishop of Leeds dismissed him as an “amoral liar“. It seemed rather harsh, not to say ungraciously and divisively partisan at the time, given that Labour was then led by Jeremy Corbyn, and no bishops were poring over his character flaws, which are legion. But yes, Boris Johnson is indeed an amoral liar, and he did indeed break his own Covid regulations, and he did indeed deceive Parliament.
But there are a few Bishops who are doing rather worse at the moment (a great deal worse, actually). Their amorality and lies may need to be made known soon: ‘judgment must begin at the house of God.’