LONDON (ChurchMilitant.com) - Protestant England never enjoyed absolute religious freedom since Henry VIII broke with Rome, a top evangelical leader is conceding, as 25 Christian leaders — including a Catholic theologian — challenge the churches' lockdown as a breach of the Magna Carta.
Church leaders who have launched a judicial review of the lockdown are contending that the state criminalized Sunday worship for the first time in centuries — despite the government allowing churches to reopen July 4 under strict guidelines.
Churches should never have been shut in the first place and "this is about helping the government to understand the principle of church autonomy and freedom from state control," Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of Christian Legal Center (CLC), told Church Militant.
Williams, who is leading the challenge, says the judicial review is "also about helping many church leaders to understand the very same thing."
"Sadly, far too many have been happy to cede too quickly their freedom to the state," invalidating the historic freedom of the church enshrined in the Magna Carta, she lamented.
In England in 1215, a coalition of nobles and all Catholic bishops, imposed the Magna Carta on King John, severely limiting royal powers.
Williams notes that the Magna Carta "is still celebrated as the foundation stone of English democracy and rule of law." Its first chapter reads: "First, we have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for us and our heirs forever, that the Church of England [the ancient Catholic Church in England] shall be free, and shall have all her whole rights and liberties inviolable ... ."
"Most of the other provisions of Magna Carta have been repealed by now, but not this one," insists Williams.
"The Magna Carta did not protect religious freedom, but the liberty of the Church," Catholic Oxford academic Dr. Joseph Shaw told Church Militant. "The right of the Church to proclaim the gospel was not regarded as applying to heresy or false religions."
However, in what critics are viewing as a scandalous split among English Protestants, national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) John Stevens has hit out at CLC's judicial review, asserting that "there has never been an unqualified right to freedom of worship" in England.
"The supremacy of the Crown over the church was finally established when Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself the supreme governor of the Church of England," Stevens maintains in a June 30 blog post.
"We easily forget that religious freedom in England was won by violent protest and iconoclasm," he writes, noting that even Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights gives the state "the right to limit the freedom to manifest one's religions or beliefs in the interests of public health."
"Personally, I do not consider that the lockdown restrictions imposed on churches have been an illegitimate restriction of our rights to religious freedom under the Human Rights Act," Stevens stresses.
"I have to say that a statement from a Christian leader that seems so shaped by fear may well not reflect what God is saying to the churches today," writes Dr. Peter Sanlon, a minister from the Free Church of England, responding to Stevens.
Stevens replies to Sanlon: "What are we prevented from doing in practice? The answer is very little except sing and baptize by immersion," completely ignoring the biblical stipulation to regularly assemble for Holy Communion.
"There remains a great confusion in the response of many evangelicals to lockdown," Dave Brennan, director of pro-life Brephos, told Church Militant.
Brennan, who has written a detailed riposte of Stevens' position, explained:
Some say we need to obey the government unquestioningly — it's about submission to authority. Some say it's in the interests of health — they believe the government's guidance is well-evidenced. Some say it's so as not to cause offense in a society that supports a strict lockdown. My question is: Which is it? For John Stevens it appears to be a (convenient) mix of all three, and whenever one of these bases is challenged, he simply hops to another one to continue his defense.
"What is even more ironic is that here is a 'non'-conformist acting rather like Church of England clergy, as if we look to the government to tell us how to worship!" writes Brennan.
There was a difference between the attitude of Protestant and Catholic states to religious freedom in the 16th and 17th centuries, explains Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.
"Catholic states acted to suppress Protestant religious violence — the vandalizing of religious images, the stealing of the Blessed Sacrament from churches, the disrupting of professions and so on," Shaw notes.
"Protestant states saw Catholic practice as idolatrous and this often led to persecution of private religious practice. Houses were searched for Rosaries and other religious items, and it was treason for priests ordained abroad to return to England, even to minister in secret," Shaw observes.
"Devotional art and liturgical vestments were burnt, while those who used them were hanged, drawn and quartered, imprisoned, or reduced to poverty by repeated fines," he adds.
Catholic theologian Gavin Ashenden, one of the leaders challenging the churches' lockdown, clarifies by outlining three patterns of Christian response.
"The first is highly secularized and spiritually incompetent, which says, 'Places don't matter; your private thoughts are everything, corporate worship is overrated,'" Ashenden notes in an article on his website.
The second response is "more literate historically but still underdeveloped spiritually" and says: "'Yes, it looks authoritarian and apocalyptic, but check out the facts. It was a pandemic. It was medicine and science, not politics. Calm down. Nothing to worry about.'"
The third response says, "There is no value-free science" and "whether there was intentionality or not, the state took upon itself the right to close churches" and prohibit worship.
"And although this was a temporary measure (it seems) it set a precedent which should have been exposed, challenged and repudiated," the former Queen's chaplain observes.
Ashenden argues that "civil liberties require us to make a distinction between those who want to withdraw from public life in order to protect themselves in a situation that is scientifically and medically ambiguous, and those who chose to take certain risks congruent with a personal value system and the dictates of their conscience."
Last week, Church Militant reported that Catholic bishops in England, Wales and Scotland were suffocating the faithful with red tape and unnecessary regulations even though the government guidelines for reopening church were not mandatory.
Church Militant also reported on Professor Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose doomsday models may have bamboozled bishops into closing churches. Ferguson broke his own quarantine rules to shack up with his married lover.
"These mysterious restrictions go to the heart of the episcopal culture of deceit that has emerged with unnerving clarity since the pandemic," Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator told Church Militant.
"They are entirely self-defeating and will hasten the collapse of Catholicism in the British Isles. I can't believe that this is what the bishops want, so I must assume that a major factor is their well-established stupidity," the presenter of the Holy Smoke religion podcast said.
Meanwhile, High Court Justice Jonathan Swift has considered the CLC documents and has ordered the government lawyers to file a response by July 15.