by Rev Dr William J.U. Philip
I was shocked, but sadly not surprised, when my phone pinged with whatsApp message passing on a video (now viral on social media) of police breaking up the Good Friday Church service of a church in south London. The video, embedded in a tweet by Giles Fraser, showed a policeman standing at the lectern announcing that “this gathering is unfortunately unlawful under the coronavirus regulations we have currently. You are not allowed to meet inside with this many people under law”. He then told the congregation to go home immediately, threatening them with £200 fines, and arrest. The tweet which included the video asked “What have we come to?”
The police inventing new laws, it seems. It is certainly not unlawful for churches to be gathering for congregational worship anywhere in the UK. This has been so in most of the country since last July, apart from brief periods of closure for a few weeks in England and Wales in the autumn. In Scotland, where I minister, it was unlawful until a Judge in Scotland’s highest court struck down the Scottish Government’s law on the 24th March following a successful Judicial Review. In a ruling which sets a very important precedent for the whole of the UK, Lord Braid accused the Scottish Government of having merely “paid lip service to Article 9” of the ECHR and failing to “accorded it the importance which such a fundamental right deserves”. It appears Wandsworth Police have fallen into the same trap; both disregarding the fundamental right to worship and overreaching themselves in the most insensitive of ways on the most significant weekend of the Christian year.
But further, rather than even enforcing the law itself they have clearly strayed into the realm of becoming enforcers of guidance, something which is clearly reserved for those in charge of places of worship themselves, not the Police.
The Government’s guidance for public worship itself begins with this statement: “guidance is of a general nature and should be treated as a guide”. The clue is in the name – with tautology for emphasis!
Places of worship themselves are responsible for applying the guidance, and “limits for communal worship should be decided on the basis of the capacity of the place of worship following an assessment of risk.” The church in question is clearly responsible, saying “we ask everyone to observe the current sanitary requirements in the church… all government requirements were met”.
There is no limit on numbers at worship in the law, and none in the guidance for England either, so long as people remain “more than one metre apart” if they are “taking extra steps to stay safe (such as wearing face coverings) to reduce the risk of transmission”. The guidance also states that “there are valid exemptions for some individuals and groups to not wear a face covering in these settings”.
So, not only was there nothing unlawful taking place, there is no evidence that even any of the (unenforceable) guidance was being disregarded. Yet Wandsworth Police later tweeted “officers made the decision that it was not safe for that particular service to continue”. It was a decision that was not theirs to make.
One has to hope that the Police will issue an apology, and that the Government will reiterate the fact that worship is perfectly lawful, and churches responsible for managing their own worship. But there are surely further questions to be asked as to why this kind of crass and needless harassment of ordinary Christians at worship should be seen as fair game, when by contrast so many other far less managed and safe events are treated by the police with kid gloves. One comment under the video suggested that the service relocate to Batley Grammar School, where large gatherings with absolutely no distancing seem to be entirely permissible. Others asked whether this kind of thing has happened – or would ever happen – in a Mosque during Ramadan, or at any other time for that matter. Quite.
Our police today will reverently sink to their knees before violent, statue-destroying BLM protesters; but they will threaten to arrest and fine those bowing the knee before Jesus Christ on Good Friday. What have we come to indeed?
Rev Dr William J.U. Philip is a Senior Minister in The Tron Church in Glasgow. He was one of a group of Scottish church leaders who brought a Judicial Review against the Scottish Government, forcing them to lift the suspension on worship on March 25th.