I believe there are clear reasons why church leaders must challenge the government over its treatment of churches during this pandemic.
For 2,000 years the Church has been subjected to attempts to stop or control us by kings, governments and people, resulting in persecution, suffering, martyrdom and, in my case, imprisonment.
The worship of God, while it can be done individually (as I found out when I was in prison in the 1970s for bringing bibles into the Soviet Union), is the corporate response and confirmation of the unity of the body.
The Church is neither a building nor an individual, but according to scripture, it is a group of Christians who meet together. While live streaming helps individuals, it is not the Church as described in the Bible.
For this reason, 1,000 years ago, King John, in the first clause of Magna Carta, said: "Granted to God, and by this present Charter have confirmed, that the Church of England shall be free and shall have all her rights and liberties inviolable, forever."
In more recent times the right of people to worship freely has been confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. But the coronavirus crisis has threatened these freedoms in a very real way. So much so that legal challenges to overturn the restrictions on churches were brought – and won – in courts in Germany, France and the US. Yet our government sought to prevent a similar challenge in the UK. This is why I'm joining with other Church leaders to take legal action against the Government.
There are two reasons I'm taking this action. Firstly, because if we do not challenge the legal right of the Government to shut churches, it will set a precedent so that a future government could act similarly to limit the freedom of the Church. Already Christian Concern have had to go to court to defend the right of Christian speakers to quote the Bible in public, to pray with individuals or witness publicly.
There is an imminent danger that we will be monitored in what we say from the pulpit on what may be contentious but biblical issues, even with regard to marriage, abortion and transgender. All the government has to do to stop us is use anti-terrorism legislation.
The second is because of the lack of respect for churches and Christians shown by the government. The government, in its list of organisations that can resume their services, classes the Church as no more than an irrelevant hobby, of less importance than Ikea, pubs, hairdressers and certain sports like fishing, golf, sailing and swimming in the sea.
In the life of the community, from a spiritual, cultural and social point of view, churches are in fact of great importance to the wellbeing of the nation. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently described churches as a "pillar in the community".
In challenging the Government, I am making a declaration to preserve the present and future freedoms of the Church in order to prevent a minority destroying these freedoms.
Unfortunately, having worked with the Underground Church in Soviet Russia for 30 years, I now see here in the UK, a parallel with the way the Soviet Communists closed churches and forced believers underground. If we don’t respond now, certainly evangelical churches will face growing opposition, not just in worship, but in our biblical proclamation, which is my concern as an evangelist. We could face, here in Britain, a two-tier Church, one legally complacent with state restrictions, and an underground, Bible-believing Church.
What is the solution? Ask the government to stop treating us like children! Why is it that in Scotland the Catholic Church simply sat down with the government and discussed their concerns and proposals for safety in the context of coronavirus, but were able to continue with the basics of the Mass and their other forms of worship?
In England, the established Church not only remained silent, but was the first to order the churches to lock their doors. It stopped priests entering for prayer, refused marriages and funerals, despite MPs pressurising the House of Bishops to allow them.
I feel strongly, because under communism, I saw and experienced what secular governments can do to the Church if we don’t speak out. The Church needs a voice – you and I must become that voice.
David Hathaway is the president of Eurovision Mission to Europe and the editorial director of Prophetic Vision magazine
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