The first time a government prevented me from attending communal worship in a church was in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2008. The last time that this happened was on Exmoor, Somerset, earlier this week, Remembrance Sunday 2020.
I was in Harare in order to strengthen a partnership between the dioceses of Harare and Rochester and show solidarity with our beleaguered brothers and sisters. In 2008, Zimbabwe was passing through a torrid time facing hyper-inflation and an economic meltdown that, as is usual, had its heaviest impact on the poorest in society. The Anglican diocese was also traumatized by the actions of a former Bishop of Harare (Nolbert Kunonga) who, with government support, was trying to enlist the diocese to support the ruling ZANU-PF part under the rule of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. When the diocese resisted, Anglican churches and property were taken out of their hands and clergy were evicted from their homes. Anglicans were not allowed in their own churches.
Congregations were forced to worship wherever they could: sometimes in gardens, sometime under trees and sometimes in church halls offered by other churches. Even at these alternative venues, congregations risked being arrested and tear-gassed by police. On my visit in 2008, I was asked by the Bishop to lead the worship of the Cathedral congregation. But the worship was not to be held in the beautiful sandstone cathedral in the middle of Harare but in a marquee in a municipal park beside a swimming pool. Before I set off for the service, the Bishop warned me of three issues I could be facing. First, there would undoubtedly be secret police in the congregation, secondly, he had heard that a foreign undercover reporter would be present (foreign media correspondents were banned from Zimbabwe) and finally, as regularly happened, the service could be raided and dispersed by police. In the event, the service was not raided, there were secret police present and I was later sent a report of the service that was published in the Sydney Herald.
Despite the dangers faced by the congregation, they turned up in large numbers because communal worship and the Eucharist were sustaining them. Those organising the worship took every precaution that all would be safe, but it was not possible to eliminate every risk and the congregation knew it. The Gospel set for the day was Matthew 10.16ff, where Jesus was warning his followers that they would be beaten, dragged out of their places of worship, and brought before governors and rulers. For the congregation, this was not simply an event that happened at the time of Jesus, but was a weekly occurrence. This situation continued for a further four years until the Zimbabwe Supreme Court gave a ruling that Anglicans should be allowed back into their churches to worship peacefully.
Such prohibition on corporate worship is not confined to Zimbabwe. The Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review on persecuted Christians sponsored by the Foreign Secretary and published in 2019 provides further examples of Christians facing arrest and harassment if they worship. In the early church there are countless examples of Christians facing death if they gather for worship.
During lockdown, the UK Government has again banned communal worship. They have done so without giving evidence that such a ban, with its human costs, would be an effective way of fighting Coronavirus. Permission has, quite rightly, been given for churches to be used for ‘essential voluntary and public services’ and for private prayer and to broadcast services online, but not for the services for which churches were originally built. The Government has simply not grasped the reality that communal worship, especially the Eucharist, feeds those who hunger for it just as foodbanks feed those in need. Worship is not a leisure activity but, alongside mission, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. Indeed, worship and mission are two sides of the same coin. Worship feeds and motivates mission: mission poses penetrating questions about worship. Depriving people of communal worship in which the sacraments can be received is, in the words of Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, a source of deep anguish for many. Digital technology has helped enormously by enabling Christians to worship on line, but this is not accessible to all and is not a replacement of communal worship for many.
The Government also does not appear to have taken into account the well-documented benefits of communal worship on mental and spiritual wellbeing. The pandemic has increased fear and panic, lockdowns increase loneliness and together they raise within many people existential questions about the meaning of life and death. Churches in general and communal worship in particular provide the space and framework to recognise, struggle with and address these questions.
In addition, the Government is infringing the human rights of its citizens by making it illegal to gather in churches for worship. The dangerous precedent that this sets was well argued by former Prime Minister Theresa May when she signalled to the Government that she could not support the measure. She said,
My concern is that the Government today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government of the future for the worst of intentions.
It would be unreasonable to suggest that the Government is deliberately setting out to undermine people’s human rights, even though that is what it is doing, but the ramifications of its action are chilling.
So what is to be done? I am hopeful that in the regular discussions between Church and Government about lockdown, the reasons behind the Government’s ban on communal worship in churches is vigorously explored. Hopefully, these discussions are with politicians who can make decisions about the ban. If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, then, we should learn from the diocese of Harare and explore the issue in the courts.
Many Christians, both living and departed, have faced harassment and even death to gain the right to worship together and in this way have witnessed to their faith. How are we witnessing to our faith when this right has been removed from us?
Image 1: by Holger Schue from Pixabay.
Image 2: Harare Service in a marquee in 2010
Image 3: Wootton Courtenay Church, Exmoor, Somerset, during lockdown.