Law and religion round-up – 10th January

And in the week in which a third national lockdown started…

Suspending public worship – England

Following the statement on Monday by the Prime Minister detailing new restrictions in England to control the spread of Covid-19, The Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said:

“The Government has chosen not to suspend public worship in England at this time and we will continue to follow the guidance and ensure that churches remain as safe as possible. The Government guidance on the safe use of places of worship makes clear that those attending a place of worship must not mingle with anyone outside their household or support bubble.

“However, some may feel that it is currently better not to attend in person, and there will be parishes which decide to offer only digital services for the time-being. Clergy who have concerns, and others who are shielding, should take particular care and stay at home.

The relevant legislation has been published and the updated Church guidance, COVID-19 Permitted Activities under national lockdown rules,  issued on 7 January, now includes a revised version of COVID-19 Suspending public worship: some legal questions and answers. The canon law requirements were first considered in our July post Coronavirus and ecclesiastical law – I, but in view of the increasing number of churches which are choosing to suspend public worship, we revisited these issues in our post Suspending public worship – England.

There has been criticism of the reliance on local action for decisions to close in-person public worship and move to virtual services both from within the Church of England, and from the National Secular Society and elsewhere. With regard to the situation in London where a major incident has been declared due to the pandemic reaching almost uncontrollable levels, boroughs “are reluctantly speaking to faith leaders to ask that they consider voluntarily closing communal worship spaces”. The Mayor of London said “Our faith communities have helped Londoners of all backgrounds throughout this pandemic. I’m calling on them again to take the safest course of action for everyone and close places of worship, save for funeral services. Gathering in person is not safe right now.”

Former Dean of Durham Cathedral, Michael Sadgrove, commented:

“This is no longer a crisis but a public health emergency. Shouldn’t decisions now be made on a diocesan or national basis? Local decision-making places severe burdens on incumbents & PCCs who don’t always have access to the best risk analyses related to variant #Covid19.”

Suspending public worship – Northern Ireland

The Church of Ireland Bishops in Northern Ireland have stated that, subject to certain exceptions, “all public gatherings for worship and all other in–person church activities should cease for our particular denomination, until Saturday 6th February 2021”. The same position has been adopted by the Presbyterian Church, the  Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and others in Northern Ireland.

Suspending public worship – Scotland

On Monday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the terms of the lockdown in Scotland, including the Government’s decision that, “with real regret”, places of worship would have to close during this period for all purposes except broadcasting a service or conducting a funeral, wedding or civil partnership. Up to 20 people will be able to attend funeral services and a maximum of five will be able to attend wedding and civil partnership services.

Public Worship – Wales

Level 4 restrictions were introduced in Wales on December 2020, and the guidance for places of worship was updated on December 23. It remains lawful to arrange to arrange worship in places of worship. The Public Health (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations permit a place of worship to remain open and people to leave their homes or travel to it from elsewhere in Wales (but not from other parts of the UK).

Removal of mementos from churchyards

The recent judgment Re St Edmund Kessingland [2020] ECC Nor 4 exposed the “considerable and mutual antipathy between the Petitioners and those supporting them and the Parties Opponent and those who agree with them” [5]; in his conclusion, Chancellor Etherington observed: “[c]ourts rarely manage completely to solve problems in people’s lives despite our increasing tendency in this age to turn to them to do just that. Courts decide what the law is and, in contested cases, make decisions in favour of one side or the other…”[125]. It remains to be seen how the parties respond to the judgment.

Nevertheless, there is plenty for ecclesiastical lawyers in this long (35 page) judgment, which re-examines Re St Mary the Virgin Burghfield [2011] Oxford Const. Ct, Bursell Ch and other authorities, and develops an approach to this sensitive issue. The Ecclesiastical Law Association has summarized the case, and we will publish a post within the next few days.

Dean Martyn Percy

Further to the report in November of a complaint made against Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church and of Oxford Cathedral, on 9 January 2021 both Christ Church and the Diocese of Oxford diocese issued statements following further media reports. These reports in The Times and Daily Telegraph have been summarized by Thinking Anglicans

Church of Scotland General Assembly 2021

On Friday, the Church of Scotland announced that the General Assembly, which starts  on 22 May, would again be held remotely.

Quick links

And finally…

In response to the prayer opening the 117th US Congress which concluded, “Amen and Awomen”,  Eccles@BruvverEccles commented:

“Apparently this man is a United Methodist pastor. So he probably doesn’t often need to say a “Hail, Snow, Rain and Sunshine Mary”, “Lord and Lady have mercy”, or “Benny Dictus and Mrs Dictus”.

1 thought on “Law and religion round-up – 10th January

  1. Church leaders in this country seem a little too eager to shut down public worship
    tho of course it is only accelerating a process already underway – the Emptying of the Churches.

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