The Church Closures are not just about COVID

The Scottish Government's refusal to open Churches is about more than just Coronavirus. A lot more is at stake, argues Benedict Stuart.

At First Minister’s Questions last Tuesday, Mrs Sturgeon claimed that Churches were not closed at all. Apparently, we have only changed the way in which we worship.

This is a bold claim, and at worst, a stupid one. Churches are – as matter of law and fact – closed for public worship. And, as far as I am aware, Mrs Sturgeon and Mr Swinney are no sacramental theologians, yet they are happy to inform Christians that their faith can still be sustained via Zoom and glitch-prone Facebook live.

Yet, despite the First Minister’s dogmatic declarations, two parties have raised legal action against the Scottish Government, arguing that the ban on worship constitutes a breach of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which protects the right to freedom of religion or belief. One of the petitioners is a party from the Catholic Church, and the other petition comes from a host of Protestant congregations. To my mind, it seems that while Mrs Sturgeon is happy for us to meet on Zoom, the view of practicing Christians is somewhat different.

Indeed, during a time of pandemic, there is a Christian obligation to cooperate with the government in relation to sanitary measures. It is the very definition of the common good that we ought to sacrifice our individual goods for the sake of the whole. Giving up small freedoms for the sake of those who are vulnerable is, thus, a duty according to natural law, and we ought to obey our political leaders when they enact just laws.

However, the debate changes when we consider what goods are a priority. A year on from the first lockdown, many things have changed, but sadly one thing is still true here in Scotland: Christians are not allowed to worship publicly.

And our priorities are precisely the issue. While we have been asked to give up our human rights for now, at the very least we can still head into crowded bookshops. And while the momentary contact of the sacraments has been put under lock and key, all-important contact sports can continue. Without giving you the full litany, essentially economic goods have been prioritised over human rights. This does not wash.

Proportional? Not a chance.

By every standard of ECHR Jurisprudence, there is no chance that the actions of the Scottish Government are proportionate to the aims intended. As the Catholic Church has insisted repeatedly, the test and protect service which Nicola Sturgeon has publicly canonised again and again has yet to trace one positive COVID test to a Catholic Church. Of course, this is because the regulations imposed upon all Christian denominations are perfectly rational and safe in light of the current circumstances; mandating use of masks, at least two metres of distancing, stewards to regulate queuing and departure from services, and even limiting the number of attendees at services to twenty in tier four – no matter if it’s in a tiny country free kirk or a vast Metropolitan Cathedral.

The ECHR makes matters very clear: as per Article 9, “limitations” on religious worship are absolutely permissible, where it is in the public interest to do so vis-à-vis safety, morals or public health. COVID-19 is a deadly infection – rational limitations on religious worship are obviously permitted here. And that is exactly what Scottish Churches have adhered to across the board: rational limitations.

But permission to impose “limitations” does not entail a permission to completely ban. Yet, it seems that the SNP want the courts to ignore this distinction.

Given the evidence, will the judicial challenges succeed? The playing field does not seem incredibly promising. Indeed, this is mostly because the judiciary are frightened to their core of coronavirus litigation, deferring everything to the executive, as the appropriate authority to determine public health policy.

Now, do not get me wrong, it is perfectly right that the judiciary should defer these matters to those better qualified. But in this case, unlike previous coronavirus litigation, the issue of worship is not a technical legal question about distancing, infection control, and government power. This is a question about human rights and the rule of law, which transcend technical questions about utility. As Dominic Keene reminded us in November, "the right to practice religion is specifically protected by the ECHR in a way that e.g. attending a football match is not".

And throughout the last year, the Scottish Government has made some dispensations from lockdown rules because of Human Rights issues. Last June the right to protest was upheld even in the high-point of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But, completely incoherently, no such permission for outdoor religious services has ever been considered.

The Crowds at Holyrood Park during the Black Lives Matter Protest

After all, if permission can be given for a black lives matter protest – an important issue, no doubt – then it seems inconsistent that religious gatherings are still forbidden. The favouritism is so obvious that it makes one laugh in misery. The protests last June took place all over the country, where the numbers attending in Edinburgh soared well into the thousands – social distancing clearly not being universally enforced. Yet religious gatherings of twenty cannot even take place outside. The scenario as of today is also not drastically different from last June, where the number of people in hospital due to COVID-19 was, like this week, just over 1,000.

What is actually happening, of course, is that the SNP are quietly bringing forward their confessional religion: secularism. The public liturgy of the secular church cannot be inhibited when it matters; but the public liturgy of Christians during Lent means little or nothing. While the church of secularism reigns, Christianity is merely tolerated – but quietly despised.

Indeed, the question is essentially liturgical. The Christian liturgy is integral to the Christian life – or better yet, the Christian liturgy is essential for salvation. Thankfully, the history of the Church is an encouraging testament to our resilience for the Divine Liturgy – a resilience which neither Nero nor Napoleon succeeded in destroying.

Christianity is an incarnational religion. The word became flesh. God became Man at a place and a time, entering into space and time so that man might know the perfection of God. The Sacraments are not something which can be transferred digitally, nor listened to while washing the dishes. They are a physical participation in that loving, transforming, life-changing reality - a participation for which men like John Ogilvie gave their lives.

Due to that love for the Incarnation, we see umpteen complaints from religious leaders, two legal challenges, and a cacophony of petitions to MSPs to have the measures reconsidered. Yet, despite the obvious breach of human rights and the rule of law, the Scottish Ministers forge on regardless.

Why do these legal challenges matter? Well, as Cardinal Manning famously said, all human conflict is ultimately theological. The conflict here is not between COVID-19 measures and public gatherings; it is essentially a theological conflict between Church and State. And this is just the first public stushie of many.

If the judiciary will not take a sensible view on the matter, we are surely just repeating history. Once Catholics were ‘tolerated’ individually, but not institutionally. Under this secular religion it shall be no different. If a government can disproportionately limit religious worship in such a way, the religion of secularism is surely confessional. Then, the existence of Christians will be tolerated, but their voice within government institutions will be completely unwelcome.

After all, this is already happening. The SNP’s agenda with transgender rights obviously does not sit well with traditional Christians, and the media are quite clearly the SNP’s acolytes in that regard. We need only look at the BBC’s treatment of Richard Lucas last week. The BBC questioned Lucas about whether it was ‘unacceptable’ for a teacher to believe that gay sex is immoral. Lucas responded that, if this was ‘unacceptable’, any member of a traditional Christian Church would not be allowed to teach. Indeed, this statement is uncontroversial; such a belief is upheld by the Catholic Church, the Free church and most mainstream evangelical denominations. Regardless, the BBC unfairly pilloried Lucas and ploughed on to imply that the teaching profession would be better off without Christian influence.

The ‘Named Persons’ Scheme was the Nats’ attempt to test the water, and they got scolded. But now, with a pandemic as their perspex shield, they are pushing out the boat to see how far they can assert their supremacy in the Church-State conflict. These legal challenges matter because they are an opportunity for the Church to assert their independence from – and superiority over – the Scottish Government. All the evidence is in our favour; even if the judiciary will not support us, at least the ecclesiastical territory has been very clearly marked.

Where from here?

At the very least, it seems natural that a Catholic would support independence; the British state symbolises little for a Catholic except a state founded on Protestantism, papist persecution, and classical liberalism. Let us not even mention the boak of the butcher’s apron to those of Irish descent.

But even for all Christians, Scotland’s nationhood lies in her Christian character. From Columba to the Canmores, our origins were distinctly formed by Christendom. It follows that one cannot truly love Scotia without love of its reason: Jesus Christ.

But a love of nation doth not a love of secularism make. If we wish to maintain any Christian case for independence, we cannot give Sturgeon’s regime one quarter of support. Their vision of Scotland’s future is not one favourable to us.

The war which we are about to face with the SNP is not a political one, but a religious one. Until we realise that this conflict is religion vs religion; secularism vs Christianity; we are not treating it with the gravitas that it deserves.

If you wish to protect religious freedom in Scotland, do not vote for this party. They will come back to bite you like the noonday devil.

Benedict Stuart

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