The UK Government has announced that England will re-enter a nationwide lockdown from Thursday, 5 November.

Schools, colleges and universities are asked to remain open but otherwise the restrictions are very similar to when the first lockdown was imposed in March. This means that churches and other places of worship are required to close for public services and are only allowed to reopen for limited reasons.

It was only last week that the government minister for faith thanked church leaders for the lengths they had gone to in order to enable churches to stay open. While further measures to modify government guidelines concerning places of worship in England were not at the time ruled out, the impending closure comes at a time when churches in Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been required to close and those in Wales will be able to reopen next week after the fire-break. 

The new rules, which will be set out in law and voted on by parliament this week, are expected to allow churches to open for only limited reasons such as broadcasting or recording live services, the provision of essential voluntary services such as foodbanks, and for individual prayer. Weddings will also be banned during this period.


How should we respond to these changes? We should acknowledge our frustration, we should speak frankly, we should not fear, and we should work for the gospel in these fertile times. 

Acknowledge our frustration

It is both disappointing and frustrating that churches are being required to close, and with such little notice. Churches across the UK have taken significant steps in recent months to ensure that their congregations can meet safely and that they comply with the relevant requirements and guidance in their nation. Churches have gone above the minimum required and have followed the advisory guidance. 

The absence of any evidence presented that churches – or any other places of worship – are sources of community transmission makes their closure harder to hear. It is notable that the essential services permitted to continue include food provision and support groups but no other more explicit practice of the Christian faith. 

The rollercoaster that churches have been on this year, from operating as normal to shifting online to working out how to return to trying to see what the medium- and long-term impact will be to now having to put it back in a box and return full time to Zoom, is exhausting in its turbulence alone. We need to acknowledge that this month of lockdown, or however long it lasts, is frustrating.

Speak frankly

This is a time for the church to speak frankly. Yes, we can find ways to worship online, and the gathering of the church is not restricted to the building in which we meet, but the gathering of believers is crucial. 

Personally, as my church has met in person over the past couple of months, the very act of being in the same room as others as we worship (but don’t sing) and hear from God’s word together is heartening and builds my faith. Churches can and will continue digitally, but for many this is a poor substitute, not an adequate replacement. The Government must know that this lockdown will come at a cost to the welfare of many Christians.

On a point of policy consistency, it is understandable, once some voluntary community activities’ are allowed to continue – as that is how church services are frequently viewed – then the domino effect will mean many other areas logically need to be allowed to stay open. Public health needs can justify the closure of buildings and this in turn will undoubtedly have an impact on the freedom of churches to meet, but the closure of buildings is only partly being applied consistently. The line has been drawn somewhere and it has been drawn above churches being considered sufficiently important to our national welfare. 

The Evangelical Alliance will ask the Government to provide evidence which confirms how closing church buildings will help stop the spread of the virus. The footnotes of the Welsh fire-break technical document suggest the closure of places of worship could reduce the R rate by 0.1, but international data is too heavily reliant on one (significant) super-spreader event in South Korea. 

Fear not

This is a time for us to fix our eyes on God. I’ve started to think that advent has come early this year – the time of waiting in expectancy for Immanuel to come, for God to be with us, to know Jesus incarnate among us, as He is and will be. 

There is much that our world is afraid of, but as people born again and known and loved by God, we are called not to fear the things of this world. There is a holy fear of God that refines our faith and draws our eyes to things above, and that fear banishes the fear of what is around us. While a virus may rage, while our society staggers for solutions, while policies and laws may close the doors of our church buildings, while the economy falters, we look to God and know He is our sure foundation. 

This does not render us powerless – the exact opposite in fact. In these difficult times we have to know the authority we are given by God and our empowerment to act as His hands and feet in our world. This crisis will make the vulnerable more vulnerable, it risks leaving the least to the last, and it ridicules our plans and policies that in more normal times act as protection for many. As people made in the image of God, we are to reflect His image into creation – and that means we stand with those who are in need, we help our neighbour, and we speak up against injustice. 

"Sometimes it’s not our job to make the rubbish go away but to grieve the pain, acknowledge the frustration, cry out in lament, and call on God to be our deliverer."

Febrile but fertile times

In these febrile times, our world needs fertiliser. I think it was more than appropriate that at church this weekend the sermon was on Luke 13, the parable of the barren fig tree, where Jesus tells the story of a man with vineyard and a fig tree which doesn’t bear fruit. Instead of complying with the request to cut it down, the vineyard keeper replied: Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it” (Luke 13:8).

Fertiliser is an unattractive substance: in its natural state it’s manure, literally from the muck heap. But it’s the very thing that makes plants grow, thrive and bear fruit. What if the mess of this year – the pain, the heartbreak, the loss and the frustration, the stress and sheer exhaustion many are encountering, the turmoil of our communities, the failures of our political systems – is part of the manure that will help the fig tree grow? 

Sometimes it’s not our job to make the rubbish go away but to grieve the pain, acknowledge the frustration, cry out in lament, and call on God to be our deliverer.