Sunday worship services permitted in England and Wales

We praise God that the UK and Welsh governments have given faith groups the freedom to decide whether to hold in-person meetings for public worship during this new lockdown.

It was a blessing and a joy that some churches, including my own at Christ Church Haywards Heath, were able to hold services today (Sunday 10 January). Like many others, we have been carefully organising our meetings in accordance with government guidance.

We totally understand and respect the fact that some churches have chosen not to use this freedom to meet as they have considered the implications for their congregation and community. But we believe it is right and good to make the most of these opportunities where it is appropriate and safe to do so, while at the same time being scrupulously careful in observing all hygiene and social-distancing protocols before, during and after services.

It is surely the case that the precautions taken by churches – the pre-screening of attendees, and their limited contact in time and proximity, the hygiene, and the responsible behaviour of all involved – indicate that our congregations do not represent a significant risk compared to, for example, a weekly visit to the shops. We are not at all being reckless by remaining open.

However, some voices are calling for places of worship to be closed as part of the national lockdown. But no-one has shown any evidence to suggest that churches present a risk of spreading infection. And the benefits to society from functioning churches must also be taken into account – some essential services – at a time when many other avenues of care provision have been closed off by the lockdown. Therefore, our conclusion is that churches are not being at all irresponsible in retaining our in-person meetings on Sunday and calls for them to be closed across England and Wales are unjustified.

Clearly, the least risky option for churches would be to go back to online meetings only. But we judge that at the present time it is appropriate spiritual leadership to give church members the opportunity (if they wish), to enjoy one of the great privileges of being part of a local fellowship. To close our meetings while the authorities say that we are free to meet would send a very odd signal about our priorities; it would also deprive a significant proportion of our congregations who are eager to meet, and leaves open the question about how long we remain closed and on what basis – especially as the lockdown could easily extend to Easter.

We do not have a strong lobbying voice and the government knows that any protests about churches being closed by law again would be easy enough to deal with. So it is a remarkable providence that churches in England and Wales are allowed to stay open for worship and an answer to many prayers, including those in our church.

We will have our own personal views on whether the restrictions are too lenient or too harsh but in God’s providence the government and scientists have judged that it is reasonable for churches to continue to meet where it is appropriate and safe to do so.

So, on balance we believe it is wise and good to responsibly use this freedom to meet in person because of the benefits, and the witness it gives of the importance we place on the gathering.

Graham Nicholls is Director of Affinity

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