How should Christians respond to the Scottish worship ban?

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This week, it struck me that leaders from the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) have made a united public stand. A little historic research into the origins of these denominations will remind you that they haven't always seen eye to eye.

Nevertheless, here these leaders were, joining in legal action to end the government's complete criminalization of public worship. In January, Scotland became the only country of the UK – and in fact, in most of Europe – to do so, without even allowing those who deem it essential to gather in a restricted and "Covid-secure" manner.

The case builds on a letter signed by 200 church leaders from across Scotland last month (and a further 300 from across the UK) that registered serious concerns with the government's decision. Soon, the voice of another legal challenger will join the choir – this time from the Catholic Church. Canon Tom White of St Alphonsus Church in Glasgow is in the process of fundraising £50,000 to bring the matter to court.

For Christians watching from home, these cases can pose a difficult conundrum. We are certainly called throughout scripture to defend the weak and the vulnerable – to "deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:3-4). And it is indeed Covid-ridden hands – and noses and mouths - that we hope our isolation and housebound activities will shelter them from.

And yet the deprivation of attending communion, or gathering to worship, for months on end feels wrong too. We know we should be following the example laid out by the early church in Acts, who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." These Christians gathered despite immense risks – in the very face of death itself.

We have a message of hope to preach, and in almost all other circumstances, we deem practising our faith to be our highest priority.

So how do we reflect Christ in a situation that seems so diametrically charged?

As far as I can see, we are led to our ultimate decision here by a cord of three strands:

Can it be medically responsible?

Is the government's ban lawful?

And is the outcome spiritually valuable?

They quip that the best thing to come out of England is the road to Scotland. But in this instance, helpful medical analysis for our first question lies south of the border.

Westminster's Chief Medical Advisor Chris Whitty, alongside Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance, acknowledged that there was only "very weak" data implying transmissions arising from Covid-secure church meetings. They admitted that evidence regarding transmission travelling to and from church was "anecdotal" rather than "scientific fact". Whitty also affirmed that "all the faith communities in the UK have been extraordinarily responsible in the way they've tried to address this".

Indeed, in May, Westminster launched a "Places of Worship Taskforce" to find a way to allow churches to open in a Covid-secure way. They created requirements including social distancing, mask-wearing, singing prohibitions, cleansing and more. This has allowed worship to take place responsibly in other parts of the UK.

So, we know that it can be done, and can be done safely - protecting both public health and freedom of worship.

With this information, we can approach our second question – is the government's ban lawful?

Governments make national laws; but they must respect human rights law, in which freedom to worship publicly and in community is protected. Indeed, in our own constitutional history, the principle of separation of Church and State was established in 1592 and reaffirmed in the Church of Scotland Act of 1921. The government may only interfere with freedom of worship to the extent that it is necessary and proportionate. Any decisions made in this regard must stand up to judicial scrutiny.

Surely, given the evidence, the proportionate response would be to both protect the vulnerable while also allowing churches to function with appropriate safety measures?

Of course, lifting the worship ban by no means forces individuals to attend services. It may be that some churches decide not to open themselves up until the crisis has lapsed. The legal cases taking place do not and would not condemn this decision. They would simply check the government's power to completely criminalise public worship, and instead return the responsibility of opening or closing to the respective leadership.

After all, not all other places where people may gather have been forcibly closed. An admittedly small, yet comprehensive list of "essential" services have remained open, including newsagents and bicycle shops. It appears the Scottish government has a different idea of what is "essential" to most other governments, and it is not one that international human rights law allows.

Finally, we must consider the spiritual weight of this decision. Now more than ever, our national spiritual health is facing its own crisis. Now more than ever, people need to turn to God. Throughout the major crises of history – world wars, famines, persecution, plagues – Church doors have remained open, with recognition for the urgent need for prayer, healing and redemption. We welcomed the lost, the lonely, the grieving. Are we really no longer needed?

To a suffering society, Church offers hope amidst despair. If we believe this, let's practice it. We may be able to meet online, but the public message of erasure to a level below a bicycle shop speaks volumes. Looking more inwardly, online church cannot offer us what we really need. It cannot offer communion. It cannot really help us to grow as a body of Christ. We were not made to glorify God alone.

Either Church is important, or it isn't.

Fr. Jonathan Beswick, Rector of St Peter's Church in London Docks, mourned recently in the Spectator that the good news of Christ had become less valued than a tin of baked beans:

"During the first lockdown the poor parochial clergy were reminded endlessly that our first duty was to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives — and that even though our churches were now closed for worship, it was wonderful and right that they should be open for food banks and blood donor sessions. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Baked beans and nappies: good! Body of Christ: bad? Pints of human blood: good! The blood of Christ: bad? Surely we could have both?"

Surely we can have both. It's legal and morally right that churches be given responsibility for themselves in this. They can serve the vulnerable with deep-cleaning caution and online accessibility, while also acknowledging that many do need to meet with a church, the church, to experience the truth of the gospel in a chaotic world, which is light over darkness, victory over defeat, life over death.

Behold, they stand at the door and knock. If they need to - let them come.

Lois McLatchie, from Scotland, writes for ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organization.