Monday, September 28, 2020

A letter I signed

 Last week I was asked to sign a letter to the Prime Minister and First Ministers of the devolved administrations offering a Christian reflection on the current governmental response to Covid-19.  I was glad to sign.  You can read the full text of the letter here.  Since the letter itself, and the media reporting of it over the weekend, has aroused a little controversy, I wanted to offer my own thoughts - an apologia pro signatura mea if you like.

What does the letter say?

To me, there seem to be two points to the letter.  One is the negative consequences of lockdown and other restrictions which we have seen on families, on lonely people, and on society more generally.  These are concerns which I think are broadly shared within and beyond the Christian church, and they are concerns which ministers of the gospel ought to voice.  The logic in the letter - that Christ came to give fulness of life, and therefore we cannot settle for a course which preserves bare existence at the expense of the very things that give life value and enjoyment - seems sound.  It is biblical and gospel-grounded, but has the potential also to appeal to those who do not accept the presupposition.  If you don't believe that Christ came to give life in its fulness, you may still think that bare existence is not much worth preserving.  As I say, many people are making this point, but we Christians ought also to make it, and louder; we ought to take a stand for the common societal good.

The second point is narrower, and stresses the crucial importance for our society of Christian worship.  This, of course, is unlikely to appeal beyond the church, but it bears saying anyway.  Life cannot be lived to the full without the gathered worship of the Triune God.  The corporate worship of God's people is what everything exists for.  This should be uncontroversial in the church, and if the world at large can't understand it, so be it.  We ought not to yield to a perspective that is not rooted in Holy Scripture.

So what does it mean?

The Sunday Times reported the letter under the headline Churches vow to stay open this time.  This is a silly headline.  I certainly didn't make any sort of vow when signing, nor am I committed to the idea that as a church we would not comply with any further restrictions.  As a point of fact, I don't have the power or authority to make that decision!  Logistically, CCC meets in a community centre, and if they close then de facto so do we, at least as far as public worship goes.  More importantly, within our church that sort of decision would not be mine alone to make; the elders would have to agree, and in fact it would be such a momentous step that I think we would need a congregational vote.  How I would advise the congregation to vote in that case I don't yet know; it would depend on the circumstances.

As I read the letter, what the signatories are asking is that we not be put in the position of having to make such a decision.  We do not want to have to ask our churches to choose between obedience to God and obedience to the secular authority.  This is not a threat of disobedience - it is a request that we not be moved in a direction where disobedience might be necessary.  Personally, I would have worded it somewhat more strongly.  I think the government is operating outside its legitimate sphere of operations in restricting individuals, families, and churches as it has done for so long - on which more later in the week.  But that is not what is at issue here.  The letter is simply an appeal that the harms done by lockdown be recognised, and that the importance of Christian worship be recognised in any future decision making.  I guess we will have a more ready audience for the former point, but the latter could not go unmade if we are to be faithful to the gospel.

I imagine that amongst signatories to the letter there is a broad spectrum of approach.  I know that some - as reported over the weekend - are already ignoring guidelines related to singing, for example.  I am not doing that, nor will I be in the near future.  Others are content that current restrictions are sensible and legitimate, but don't want to see anything further.  I personally can't see that they are either sensible or legitimate.  There is a range of opinion - I know from speaking to a few people - but we should be able to agree on the two key points: lockdown has been harmful in many ways (and this is not to prejudge whether it has also been essential); and Christian worship is essential.

Where do we go from here?

It seems clear to me that we need some more robust theological work on the place of the state.  A fair amount of the commentary seems to be biblicist in its quick jump to Romans 13 as if that settled all issues.  We have a couple of millennia of thought on this topic which we ought to be bringing to bear.  We also perhaps need a clearer view of the value of corporate worship; many people seem to think we're not missing much by streaming or being on Zoom.  I think Zoom church is church on life support.  Now is the time to do this theological work - the best theology always emerges under the pressure of events.

We need to continue to speak into issues that go beyond the immediate rights and concerns of the church.  If I'd been writing the letter, I might have put more stress on the first point, or at least developed it more.  We don't just speak out when they come for us - we should have learnt this at least from the Confessing Church.  But - and again we should have learnt this from the Barmen Declaration - we must speak on our own ground, on gospel ground.  We don't disconnect the societal needs from the gospel need.

Perhaps above all, we need to avoid making our opinions on Covid or on Her Majesty's Government a mark of righteousness.  Personally, I haven't been singing in church and have worn a mask as required - but I am not thereby justified.  On the other hand, I have signed this letter, and have written somewhat critically of the restriction regime - but I am not thereby justified.  We can and should disagree well on these things, both within our churches and between them.  A stress on the centrality of the gospel, a willingness to go slower (and faster) than we are personally comfortable with in order to show love to others, and a willingness to hear other sides empathetically and sympathetically ought to mark our approach.  We should do everything we can to avoid distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters who hold the gospel, even whilst clearly expressing our disagreements as necessary.

I was glad to sign the letter.  I was encouraged to see so many others sign it.  I hope that many who didn't feel able to sign it still feel able to speak into the legitimate concerns expressed.  I hope this represents the beginning of a new boldness and engagement for the church in the UK.


  1. As ever, Daniel, you manage to write succinctly without being blunt, and to express your opinion in a respectful and compelling way without being argumentative.
    I don't agree with all you've said, but you say it in such a way that I can still be moved and convicted by some of the other things that you say, i.e., I don't feel wriled or annoyed by those things with which I disagree.
    I'm conscious that my own opinions on lockdown, current restrictions and the nature of worship are significantly coloured by my personal experience of lockdown and my perception of the needs of mankind for fellowship and interaction as viewed through the lens of my own personality. In particular, I don't have pastoral responsibility (except as a fellow-member) for the whole local church in all its arrayed spectrum of circumstances over lockdown, and I have a job which - in the grand scheme of things - has changed very little over the last six months except for the place I sit to do it.
    Alas, being conscious of those things doesn't automatically enable me to see the bigger picture or appreciate others' points of view.
    Again, thank-you for your clear and firm - yet humble - thoughts.

    1. Thanks Peter. The great thing about writing as a medium is that I can deliver all my irrational points in conversation, usually with my long-suffering wife, and then appear very rational and calm on the 'blog. Not to mention ever so 'umble.

      Hope you're being kept well and relatively cheerful!