James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.
Of all the liberties suspended during this crisis, there is one which is particularly painful.
Religious freedom – the ability to practise your faith in public – is the hallmark of a free society. It’s something we’ve enjoyed in this country for almost 200 years and underpins so many other rights and freedoms.
Like many of the 4.5 million Catholics in this country, I would usually be going to church at Easter. But that will not be possible this year.
Our churches are shut, priests can only say mass behind closed doors, religious gatherings are banned. It sounds unthinkable in twenty-first century Britain and yet, with so much else, the unthinkable has become reality. It is a throwback to a time we thought had passed.
Easter Sunday 1829 was the first time since the Reformation when Catholics could celebrate mass in public. The Roman Catholic Relief Act, introduced by the Duke of Wellington, and grudgingly given royal assent by King George IV on 13 April that year, formally ended centuries of discrimination under the penal laws. It took another 30 years for Jews to enjoy these same rights with the passing of the Relief Act 1858.
Having gained the right to practise their faith, Catholics have held onto it dearly ever since – through war, famine, and depression. Our churches have often been the focal point for people during times of national crisis. This time is different. Church groups are helping the vulnerable, as they always have in times of crisis, but the doors to our churches are closed. We are missing a much-needed space for reflection and prayer in these difficult days.
This is right of course. We have seen in other parts of the world, particularly in Italy, where the decision to keep churches open has not helped efforts to contain the virus.
In this country, our churches have followed the Government’s guidance to the letter. Catholic bishops took steps to limit the spread of the virus in churches before the Government intervened – holy water was swiftly replaced by hand sanitiser in my parish church.
But whilst closing churches is the right thing to do, it doesn’t make it easy. It’s not helped by a sense that the impact of church closures is not fully understood by decision makers.
The Prime Minister’s historic lockdown address on Monday 23 March didn’t offer much consolation to the millions of people whose faith is the rhythm of their lives. Places of worship were mentioned in the same breath as outdoor gyms and electrical shops as places that must close. As if going to church were the same as a few push-ups in the park or popping out to get a new fuse for a plug.
Catholics, along with everyone else, need to make sacrifices. Millions are enduring hardship at this time. But do not underestimate the importance of churches to our lives or the sense of loss we feel at their closure. For Boris Johnson, a baptised Catholic (later confirmed Anglican), this message should find a sympathetic ear.
The Government has worked hard to improve relations with faith groups, including the appointment of a Faith Engagement Adviser last year. But there is still room for improvement, particularly around the ‘religious literacy’ of those making decisions.
This was shown in a recent report into Christian persecution around the world, commissioned by the former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The report was warmly welcomed by faith groups, but the recommendations showed a clear need for civil servants – both at home and on UK missions – to have a better understanding of religion.
The report’s author, the Bishop of Truro, found “an overwhelming amount of evidence pointed to the lack of religious literacy of civil servants in the FCO”. This criticism also extended to officials in the Home Office. Improving the religious knowledge of those in government was one of the central themes in the 22 recommendations in his report, published in July last year.
On becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson committed to implement the recommendations of the report “in full” and appointed Rehman Chishti as Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief – a role he has thrown himself into. A commitment to promote religious freedom also made it into the manifesto, which won a lot of support from faith groups.
The Global Britain that the Prime Minister has spoken about clearly has a moral dimension – whether that’s tackling climate change and illegal wildlife poaching or promoting free trade and free speech. Religious freedom should also be up there with our main international objectives.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the Truro report, was the scale of the problem it uncovered. Over 250 million Christians face persecution around the world, according to the report, accounting for 80 per cent of all religiously motivated discrimination. This ranged from making it impossible for religious leaders to leave or enter a country, to burning down churches and murdering worshippers. Religious persecution continues to be a very real problem.
Our churches are closed for Easter, but they will open again. For many people around the world, their churches may never open and they face daily persecution for their faith.
This crisis is teaching us the value of religious freedom. Perhaps when it’s over, people of all religions will have greater confidence in speaking up for their faith at home and abroad.