The continued resurgence of coronavirus cases across the UK has led to a fresh wave of restrictions. Much of Scotland’s most populated areas are in a two-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, and Northern Ireland will follow a similar path including the closure of schools for at least two weeks from 16 October, with the hospitality sector closing for four weeks.

The system of individual local lockdowns in England has now been replaced with a three-tier set of restrictions, with every local authority placed in one of the three categories. At present only the wider Liverpool City Region is in the highest tier of restrictions, which sees the closure of many bars and pubs, but alcohol can still be served in conjunction with a substantial meal’. The other areas of England that had previously been in local lockdown are in the middle tier, which largely replicates the restrictions that had previously been in place. The bottom tier comes with the restrictions that are in place nationwide. 

At present these restrictions do not see the closure of churches, and many other activities and business that are able to operate in a COVID-secure manner are able to continue. However, there will be an impact on how churches operate. The restrictions on household mixing in the areas of England placed in the high and very high tiers will make many pastoral activities including home groups almost impossible. In addition, the limits on mingling’ that are in place elsewhere in England, and stricter rules in other nations, mean that the social element of gathering together for worship is extremely limited. 

A further notable development in recent weeks is the increased political debate and scrutiny on different measures that are being discussed and implemented. When the whole of the UK went into a coordinated lockdown in March, the differences between the four nations of the UK were minimal, and there was no regional or local differentiation. The desire to lift restrictions, and to only apply them again locally, is based on the understanding that while they were effective in restricting the spread of the virus they came with severe negative consequences. Much of the discussion has focused on the economic cost, but there is a growing realisation that the impact is felt far more widely, not least on children’s education, our mental health, and the social and spiritual welfare of the population. 

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There are at least three dimensions in which to consider restrictions and their impact. First of all, are they necessary? Some commentators are sceptical as to whether restrictions are necessary to stop the spread of the virus and limit its most damaging consequences. There has been much discussion of the alternative approach taken in Sweden, which never saw a national lockdown and the ensuing repercussions.

Second, if it is necessary to put measures in place to stop the spread of the virus, there is consideration of whether the particular measures being put in place are effective in achieving that. For example, there has been significant comment on the unintended consequences of requiring all pubs, restaurants and takeaways in England to close at 10pm, creating a bottleneck of people all leaving at once, using public transport, and purchasing alcohol for consumption elsewhere. 

Third, there is consideration of what the negative impact of particular measures will be. For example, the UK Government has made it clear that it is prioritising keeping schools open, as they view the negative consequences of closing schools as severe, both for the welfare of children and the ability of parents to work.

The polarisation of opinion, seen in politics and the press, of either wanting to lockdown everything or ‘let the virus rip’, is unhelpful as very few people hold the views at either pole.

Debate therefore ranges as to which measures are most effective, and which measures have the least damaging consequences. These are legitimate political disagreements, and debate and scrutiny are essential as options are weighed and decided, even when needing to happen at speed. The polarisation of opinion, seen in politics and the press, of either wanting to lockdown everything or let the virus rip’, is unhelpful as very few people hold the views at either pole.

As Christians engage in public debate at this time, it is vital that we are aware of these dynamics and where our opinions and experiences place us. We should seek to engage with grace, wisdom and discernment, and an understanding that we will disagree about how to interpret the situation and the best course of action in response.

Specifically, in relation to how the rules apply to churches, it is also important to see that our response will be influenced by the same questions about the value and purpose of lockdown measures. Are they effective, and what are the negative consequences?

This means that for some there is a greater willingness to accept restrictions because they are viewed as both necessary and effective; and for some churches the restrictions are felt more severely than for others. For more sacramentally oriented churches, the restrictions on sharing communion in both kinds is a severe limitation; for churches where sung worship is integral, the advice not to sing is highly restrictive.

This has an impact on how Christians read and apply teaching relating to obeying government authority and how that interacts with defending and promoting the importance of religious freedom. If you think measures are highly effective and only have limited impact on your religious freedom then you are more likely to welcome them, whereas if you are dubious about their effectiveness and view them as restricting your religious freedom you will be much more resistant. There is a crucial place for a wise consideration of government authority and religious freedom protection in the current political environment. It is, however, not simply a matter of our theological position, nor our support for particular political parties. It is intertwined with our approach to science, our personal experience of lockdown, the tradition in which we worship, and many other factors.

The restrictions on the freedom to assembly do have an impact on our freedom to worship, because gathering together is integral to our worship. The church in the UK made admirable and significant efforts to ensure worship and teaching could continue when we couldn’t meet in person, and for many that is still the best way to draw the whole congregation together. But there was an impact nonetheless. And, as further measures may be announced, there is a vital need for discernment and an understanding of how they affect our freedoms.

In the months ahead there will be limitations on how we meet as churches, and some of these will be costly to the spiritual welfare of our congregations and our wider communities. These costs need to be considered alongside the other factors –economic, educational and social – of lockdown measures. In how we respond, and how we judge the Government’s actions, we need to know the cost and respond with grace to those who view things differently. Whether this is relating to wider political discussions, or restrictions specific to churches, we should act with grace and pursue truth. We should cherish the freedom we have to worship dearly and continue to stand with those – across the world – for whom it is withheld.