As an MP who is known as a Christian, you won't be unsurprised to discover that over the last week my inbox has been inundated with messages about the closure of churches.
I have been deeply saddened by the news that churches will be closing for the next month. Over the last few weeks, I have got to church physically and it has been an amazing blessing. Although I have to admit I have had a hard job restraining myself from singing. Zoom has been great but it is no substitute to being able to meet in person. And when a time comes when we can sing again I have no doubt that we will raise the roof!
So why has the Government come to the decision to close places of worship? There seems to be little evidence of them causing the spread. Churches, as far as I am aware, are being incredibly diligent in making sure they are following the guidelines and keeping their congregations safe. And church is not simply another gathering like any other. Church cannot be reduced to 'an indoor gathering of over 6 people'. It is not the same as a Sunday morning yoga class or a Wednesday evening Lib Dem branch meeting.
There are countless images in the Bible that illustrate the nature and intimacy of the Church. It is the body of Christ, each member essential but different parts, a building, built together on the foundation of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 we are told 'we were all baptised by one
Spirit so as to form one body'. The Church is not just a gathering of people. In Ephesians 2 they are described as God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple to the Lord'. It is an utterly awesome picture and an incredible privilege to be part of the Church. You can say a lot for the benefits of the gym but not this!
In Hebrews 10:25 we are told to 'not give up meeting together'. The hodgepodge of ages, backgrounds, races and cultures that are united under God as his Church is not just a group of people who happen to believe the same thing. They are a living demonstration of the gospel. This is a small picture of what eternity will look like - people from every tribe, tongue and nation gathered together in worship of God (Rev 7 v9).
So we find ourselves throwing up our hands in despair and frustration at the Government and saying 'Don't you understand?'. And the answer is, no they don't. And we can't expect them to.
Think about it from the Government's perspective. Why should churches get special treatment? I have also had a high number of emails expressing concern and distress at the closure of gyms and golf courses. And you might be surprised to learn that at least some of the reasons given are comparable to the benefits claimed for church attendance - they are important to thousands of people's wellbeing; they are places of community and identity.
If you consider church a tool to maintain and protect community and mental health, then the Church is like the gym - apart from possibly having more focus on care for the community and fewer physical health benefits. And the Government has arguably recognised that difference, which is why churches can stay open to run food banks.
Giving evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance were asked about the evidence for closing places of worship. In response they stated that 'we haven't got good evidence on the exact value of each intervention on R'. They did praise faith communities for how responsible many of them are being. But the long and short of it is, there isn't accurate specific data on the impact of churches on infections. However, to take that and claim there is no evidence for church closures is to intentionally misunderstand them.
There is also some danger in applying your experience across the board. Whilst I do think the majority of churches have been incredibly safe I don't imagine the ones that are being less diligent are advertising that fact. The frustration of Christians at the lack of evidence to support church closures is understandable – but it's not unique. The same could be said about countless other settings, golf courses for example.
We are not being uniquely persecuted. The mosques are closed, the synagogues and temples are closed, the yoga and meditation classes are closed, the gyms and golf courses are closed. Why should we expect special treatment from a government led by people who aren't professing Jesus as Lord and Saviour? They don't understand and we shouldn't expect them to.
All the same, whilst I have come to the conclusion that the Church can weather a month of closure, I think it is absolutely right for Christians to fight for churches to be opened subsequently for collective worship. The Church is not like anything else, it is what God is doing on earth, it is his people, his body and the way he is bringing people to eternal life. Our desperation to meet, and persistence in campaigning to do so, can be a massive witness to the Government and the country.
The Church is of colossal importance. It has no comparison. Our passion and deep desire to see it opened isn't just a matter of self-interest. It isn't our club. It isn't the prop for our mental wellbeing. It is where we unite in worship of the God of the universe, as he has commanded us to do. It is the hope for the world and the place people are brought to eternal life. So I will fight for churches to be re-opened, not because I miss the singing and the coffee but because it is a fundamental part of our identity as Christians.
Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats.
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