James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.
Covid turned all our lives upside down in so many ways.
The disruption caused by the virus was all too clear in schools, hospitals, and high streets. But it was not just the physical infrastructure of our society that was battered by the winds of the pandemic. It uprooted many of the social norms that underpinned our way of life.
Unwritten, often unspoken, rules on how to behave – built up over the generations – came up against a tidal wave of new regulations as the Government scrambled to control the virus.
In many cases these state-backed rules were the direct opposite of our social norms. Loved ones were not allowed to hug, neighbours and friends unable to visit each other, and even stopping for a chat risked a warning from the police.
With restrictions eased, many of our social norms are returning. But it’s clear that in some areas the damage is greater than others, and work is needed to prevent them being washed away forever.
One of those social norms concerns how we treat priests and other ministers of religion, and the degree to which we make allowance for them to carry out their work in our communities.
Like so many people, I was deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Sir David Amess a month ago today. As a Catholic, what made the news that little bit sadder was the fact that Sir David’s parish priest had been unable to give him the Last Rites on the day he died.
To Catholics like Sir David, whose faith was central to his life, receiving the Last Rites is something of great importance. It is the anointing given by priests to those who are gravely ill and considered close to death.
According to reports, Sir David’s parish priest heard about the attack and went to where the surgery meeting had been taking place. However, officers at the scene prevented him from getting to Sir David as he was refused permission to enter the crime scene.
It’s difficult to say whether the same situation would have occurred before Covid. Understanding about the importance of priests and other ministers of religion to their congregations had been waning before the pandemic. But it’s clear that the rigid rules of Covid regulations have helped to push social norms in this area even further to breaking.
At various times during the pandemic, places of worship were closed and restrictions placed on religious services. Indeed, the Scottish Government was found to have acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in its continued insistence on keeping places of worship in Scotland closed earlier this year.
There were also sadly times when priests and other ministers of religion were denied access to the sick and the dying. This was an all too familiar story in care homes, hospitals, and hospices across the country – especially at the beginning of the pandemic. The rigid Covid rules had the affect of making everyone so scared that respect for religious views was too quickly brushed aside.
While some care providers went out of their way to make it safe for priests to visit, others did not. I know of at least one hospital that imposed a total ban on priests visiting patients and insisted that any interaction was to be conducted via iPad.
It’s fair to say there have been times in the past 18 months when religious observance has not been treated as the fundamental freedom that the European Convention on Human Rights requires or as our own social norms previously recognised. It makes the case for improving religious literacy among policy makers and public servants even more important to ensure that social norms are quickly re-established in the wake of the pandemic.
Peers will shortly get the chance to debate this in the House of Lords. Baroness Stowell, Conservative peer and former Lords Leader, has tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on ministers of religion having access to crime scenes.
The amendment has been tabled to “probe expectations of police procedure” in light of what happened with Sir David Amess. It would establish a presumption that the constable in charge of a crime scene would allow entry to a minister of religion in order to perform religious rituals or prayer associated with dying.
Stowell has indicated she does not want to force a vote on the amendment, and instead wants to use the debate to clarify correct procedure and behaviour in these situations. However, a number of peers, and MPs, have publicly stated that they would like to see a change in the law in this area with the so-called “Amess amendment” put on the statute book.
Whether new legislation is required or not perhaps depends on the willingness of the police to change and re-establish the previously accepted social norms in this area. It also depends on how the Government frontbench in the Lords responds to this amendment.
Following Sir David’s killing it emerged that the College of Policing, which oversees some police training and development, has no national guidance in place around ministers of religious having access to crime scenes. Perhaps this is unsurprising given how rare these cases are, and how strong social norms in this regard had previously been. But reviewing training practices and issuing guidance should surely now be considered by the police.
We cannot allow another situation like the one involving Sir David to happen again. While Sir David’s priest was at least able to pray beyond the police cordon of the attack, he was denied the chance to be with Sir David in person in those final, precious moments. For Catholics, and other people who have faith, that is a source of great sadness.
For Sir David, whose Catholic faith motivated his life of public service, there could be few legacies better than helping to re-establish social norms around respect for people’s faith in society.