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Legal challenge over the right to hold church services

Pleas to allow Christmas mass to go ahead

26 November, 2020 — By Harry Taylor and Helen Chapman

Pastor George Platt

A PRIEST has joined a legal challenge over coronavirus restrictions on church services.

Pastor George Platt, of Highgate Chapel in Highgate Road, Kentish Town, is among more than 100 church leaders who are seeking a judicial review over the government rules, insisting they infringe the human rights of parishioners.

Under current lockdown restrictions, places of worship remain open for individual prayer and support projects, such as foodbanks, but communal services are banned. The case, which was adjourned at the High Court on Monday, comes with plans for Christmas in churches facing major disruption.

Mr Platt said: “The shops are open for food but we think in church we find food for our soul, and that is, we believe, even more essential than our necessary food for our bodies.”

He added: “We couldn’t really understand why other important places in society were treated differently such as schools, universities and colleges. It just very much seems that they didn’t understand the importance of what we do as a church. We feel spiritual health has been very much overlooked in the government’s priorities.”

Ministers this week announced a new three-tier system of restrictions will begin on December 2, when the current lockdown ends, which will allow communal church services to take place.

Carol-singing looks set to be banned under the tougher tiers in an attempt to cut the spread of the virus, and social distancing will mean congregation sizes are cut.

Churches were closed altogether during the first national lockdown, in a move which Father David Houlding, of All Hallows Church in Gospel Oak, claimed had broken the law.

In the past month he said he had “pushed the boundaries”, leaving the church door open while leading digital services on Zoom, meaning some parishioners have been able to attend but not take part as normal.

He said: “I don’t lock the doors when I’m doing the services. My church has been open on a Sunday ever since the middle of March. In the summer we met outside – that was never actually forbidden. “Trying to close the churches was illegal, that’s what people don’t realise, because the church buildings belong to me as vicar. I can’t be forbidden to go inside church.”

He added: “I can’t be forbidden from celebrating mass. I might do it privately with nobody in attendance, but the worship of the church carries on, whether there are people there or not.”

Revd Houlding said that he felt Prime Minister Boris Johnson was leading “the most extraordinarily secular government we’ve ever had”, but he did not support the legal action.

“I don’t think it is worth it,” he said. “You could end up in a worse situation than you’ve got now.” Earlier this month government minister Lord Greenhalgh told the House of Lords: “We have come to a critical point in the fight against Covid-19.”

Stressing the need to “limit our interaction with others”, he said: “Therefore, with great regret, while places of worship will remain open for individual prayer, communal worship cannot take place at this time.”

Revd Marjorie Brown

All Hallows usually welcomes between 400 and 500 people for the three festive celebrations. Reverend Marjorie Brown, of St Mary’s in Primrose Hill, said: “It will be very different. We can’t all sing the Christmas carols, instead we’ll be able to listen to the choir. “We’ll be doing a Christmas Eve service for children but we won’t be able to bring over 300 people in as usual.”

Revd Brown added that without the church, some members of her congregation had lost one of their main ways to see other people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on Tuesday that communal worship helps tackle the “epidemic of isolation.”

Revd Brown agreed, adding: “For some people it’s the main social event of their week. Coming to church and seeing their friends – it’s crucial to their emotional wellbeing.”

Meanwhile, Father John Hai Pham of Our Lady of Hal Catholic Church in Arlington Road, Camden Town, said: “Christmas will not be the same without the beauty and joy of the Christmas mass,” he added.

“Our masses and carol concerts should be allowed to go ahead. We have abided by the social distancing and cleaning measures. Nothing less will be a great disappointment.”

Revd Houlding said: “Christmas is a very big deal at All Hallows. “The thing I’ll miss is the way people mingle and share the joy of Christmas with each other. The worship will still be there. It brings about a sense of togetherness with other people, and that’s what it will miss.

“This does not mean Christmas doesn’t happen. The message of Christmas is that God shares his love with us. He is in the muddle and the mess as much as he is anything else. The message is that God understands what that is like.”

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