Prominent UK church leaders today branded the mass closure of churches ‘unlawful and unnecessary’ as they threatened a judicial review into keeping them shut.
A coalition of Christian bishops and reverends has urged the Government to prioritise churches in its exit strategy from the coronavirus lockdown.
They said it was unfair for churches to be in the ‘bottom category of the most dangerous and least important services’ with beauty salons, pubs and cinemas.
The letter signed by 25 prominent church leaders – but not endorsed by the Church of England – is a pre-action legal warning against Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
However social media users have warned churches would be ‘risking the lives of congregations’ and some Christians said they are not ready to go back just yet.
And the National Secular Society told MailOnline today that religious activities should not be ‘privileged or prioritised over and above those of a secular nature’.
It comes after France’s Supreme Court last week ruled that the country’s ban on religious gatherings was illegal and ordered its government to relax restrictions.
All places of worship in Britain have been closed since mass gatherings were banned by the Government on March 16 – and they are not expected to reopen before July 4.
But churches in Northern Ireland have now reopened for private prayer – albeit with strict social distancing rules and hand sanitiser dispensers in place.
The UK church leaders warn the closure of churches is an ‘extreme interference’ with human rights by contravening freedom of thought, belief and religion.
The letter adds that the regulations are ‘disproportionate in the circumstances where the overwhelming majority of churches had closed down voluntarily’.
The leaders say they want a constructive dialogue with the Government but will seek a judicial review of the ban if Ministers fail to address their concerns.
Among the signatories is Matthew Ashimolowo, leader of UK megachurch Kingsway International Christian Centre in East London, which has a congregation of 12,000.
Another is David Hathaway, a well-known evangelist in Britain, who said: ‘The Government has failed to recognise the centrality of faith to a Christian’s life.
‘Sunday worship and access to church buildings have been treated like a mere hobby or pastime rather than foundational to national and Christian life.’
A third, Ade Omooba, co-chair of the National Church Leaders Forum, said: ‘It cannot be right that at present it is lawful to go to a bike shop, B&Q, visit a chiropractor or dry cleaner, and not be allowed to receive Holy Communion or engage in silent prayer in a church.
‘Churches have traditionally been at the centre of the communities, able to offer counsel, prayer and comfort at times of national crisis.
‘They are at the heart of our communities helping to combat mental health problems, addictions, risk of suicide, domestic violence, poverty and risk.
‘Churches deliver an essential service to the community. The Government should not be putting churches as the lowest priority services for re-opening from the lockdown.
‘We look forward to the response from the government to this letter and hope that we can engage with the government to see church ministry prioritised as we start to exit the lockdown.’