wales lockdown greeting cards freedom of religion churches closed
Freedom of Religion

Wales lockdown isn’t only absurd; it denies freedom of religion

Tomorrow is your birthday. You’ve received a card from your Mum every single year of your life, without fail, even when you were abroad, and even when she was very ill in hospital. She’s thoughtful like that: she plans ahead. When your Dad was alive, she was still the one who wrote it every year, without fail: ‘Lots of love, your Mum and Dad xxx’. At the age of 80, she is now very frail, and this will probably be the last birthday card you’ll receive from her. It will be a special one, and you’ll keep it in a drawer of treasures just in case, along with last year’s Christmas card, just in case.

Except in Wales your Mum can’t buy one this year. Birthday cards are not ‘essential’ items. Since greeting cards shops have been closed by the Welsh Labour Government, supermarkets may not sell cards either. “Supermarkets can sell anything that can be sold in any other type of shop that isn’t required to close”, tweeted Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford. “In the meantime, please only leave home if you need to.”

The First Minister is of the view that it is “unfair” to force greeting card shops and clothing and hardware retailers to close while similar goods were on sale in the big supermarkets. So, in order to create a level playing field, if Clinton’s can’t sell a birthday card, you can’t buy one in Tesco either, or in Asda, or Sainsbury’s. So your Mum won’t be able to write a card for you this year, even though it might be her last, because it would be “unfair” on Clinton’s, where there’s a card for every occasion except a Covid lockdown.

And in Wales the churches have been closed; corporate worship banned. “Places of worship will not be open to the public, other than for wedding or civil partnership ceremonies or funerals, where people can attend at the invitation of the organiser.” So Christians can safely meet to tie the knot and bury their dead, but they may not meet to hear the Word or worship the Living God.

Church leaders have objected: “The forced closure of churches by the state is an extreme interference with Article 9 rights”, they write to the National Assembly for Wales. “Such a far-reaching and large-scale intervention may only be justified by the most compelling scientific evidence of a resulting benefit to public health.” And since churches aren’t closed in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, it’s hard to see what “the most compelling scientific evidence” is which justifies a blanket ban on Church services in Wales. They take the view that Church closure is a matter for Church authorities, not secular governments:

In the domestic law of England and Wales, the principle of church autonomy is of a much greater antiquity than, and at least as important constitutional status as, under the Convention. It is enshrined in c.1 of Magna Carta 1297. The martyrdom of Thomas Beckett [sic.] for that very principle is of enormous significance in the Anglican Tradition. The Acts of Supremacy were necessary to establish the status of the Monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England precisely because ecclesiastical authority is recognised by the common law as distinct from the temporal authority. Henry VIII could dissolve monasteries only after, and because, he had assumed the supreme ecclesiastical office; the measure would have been ultra vires the temporal powers of the Crown.

The 1559 Church-State Settlement still has legal force and is specifically affirmed by every English sovereign in their coronation oath. This sets out separate spheres for church and state. Broadly speaking, the state may not interfere in either the interpretation of Scripture or the sacraments i.e. in effect worship, while the church must be subject to the law in other matters. The government of the realm and the government of the Church of England were always distinct in our Constitution, despite the same Monarch being ultimately at the head of both.

Articles of Religion 1562provide in Article 37: “Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government…we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments”. The government of the Church of England is subject to its own constitutional law, currently governed by the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919.

The Church is a community, called to share its corporate life in worship and sacrifice, and that is its witness to the world. For the believer, this community embodies an alternative order of government which is a sign of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Church attendance is, for some, a matter of salvation. As the Church leaders write:

By contrast, in a believer’s worldview, church services are part of our means for achieving eternal salvation of the soul, which is infinitely more important than even a survival of the body. The Bible and centuries of tradition oblige Christians to gather weekly for worship and witness around the Word of God and sacraments; we need one another to flourish in our service to Christ (Ex.20:9-11; 1Cor.16:1-2; Heb.10:24-25; Acts 2:42, 20:7). Neither confessional Christian faith nor the Church as an institution can faithfully exist without a Lord’s Day gathering. The Church has adhered to that obligation through long periods of persecution, where fulfilling it meant a risk of death at the hands of temporal authorities. The church does not exist by permission of the state, for its establishment and rule is found in Jesus Christ himself.

The community of the Church is not simply a pub gathering or a business meeting; it is a reified social manifestation of the people of God. When the Church gathers, the people of God are participating in Christ. The Church is the body of Christ, a temple of living stones: it is not an atomised collection of individual members or isolated stones, but a community of peacemaking and loving. Yes, individuals may make peace and love, but it is as believers meet together that the communal identity of a transformed and transforming community reflects the glory of God.

When the Church gathers, it becomes a living metaphor for the power of God. Christians are called – commanded – to live in community; to be responsive to one another’s actions, attuned to each others’ needs. It is not for the secular Government of Wales to prohibit the sacred sacramental life of universal commonness, sacrificial sharing and transcendental reciprocation. And it is not for Welsh Labour’s petty socialist regulation to prohibit your mother from buying you a birthday card.