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Freedom and faith: Scotland’s lockdown

This has been a difficult year for Christians in Scotland, but one in which our convictions have been sharpened, our unity stretched, and the historic constitutional settlement in which we worship called into question. Our family moved from Sydney to Scotland in August 2018 so that I could complete a PhD in Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh. We have stayed in Edinburgh the entire time since the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread across the globe. I’m due to finish my PhD in 2022, and we have never given any serious consideration to returning to Australia early. The fact that Australia has closed its borders so tightly—even to its own citizens—has been a stark reminder that ultimately our citizenship is not of this world.

Depending on how you count it, we are either in our second or third lockdown here in Scotland. Preschools and schools first closed on Friday 20th March 2020. Preschools reopened in mid-July and schools reopened in mid-August. Preschools and schools closed again at Christmas time (usually only a two-week break) and partially re-opened two months later (high schools will only fully return in late April 2021). Our kids are now 2 and 6, so balancing school and childminding has been a challenge! My wife Larissa works for the Scottish Government, and has worked from home since March 2020. They might (might!) return to the office in June 2021. I’m grateful for my wonderful family, and for how God continues to provide for us. I’m also mindful, however, of others who have been much less fortunate than us.

One of the biggest challenges has been restrictions on churches. These have dovetailed roughly with preschool and school closures. More often than not over the past year we have had to make do with Zoom calls on a Sunday morning. Ordinarily, our church rents a school hall from Edinburgh Council. We haven’t had access to that hall the entire time, but another church in Edinburgh has kindly offered us the use of their building on Sunday afternoons. All of our other mid-week activities are done over Zoom. Our Sunday church gatherings are still very restricted. We have to socially distance, we have to wear masks the entire time, and we aren’t allowed to sing. There is a cap on attendance of 50 people, meaning that every few weeks we have to watch the church service at home on Zoom. Having limits on attendance, and effectively limiting attendance to ‘insiders’ only, feels so counter to my whole experience of church and my training as a pastor. This experience has reminded me just how important gathered worship is and that it should not be taken for granted.

The Scottish Government imposed a blanket ban on worship just before Christmas, despite the fact that churches in other parts of the UK were allowed to remain open during that time. Concerned that the Scottish Government were acting beyond their powers, 27 pastors from around Scotland—including our own pastor—challenged the ban on worship by raising a judicial review at the Court of Session. It was unlikely that the Judicial Review would make an immediate practical difference; the Scottish Government planned to allow churches to reopen from Easter Monday. At stake, however, was an important principle: if the Scottish Government could ban worship for this reason, what was to stop them from banning worship for any other reason? They might have good intentions now, but what if next time they did not?

The Review was heard before Lord Braid (a judge of the Supreme Courts) on 11-12 March 2021. I was not optimistic about the outcome. Other courts around the UK had shown little interest in challenging any emergency measures. And then—to my astonishment and delight—Lord Braid struck down the ban on worship. Lord Braid found that the ban was a disproportionate interference in human rights, specifically the freedom of thought, conscience and religion as enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (of which the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments are signatories). Although the Scottish Government is responsible for public health and safety, and can suspend these rights in a public health emergency, the ban on worship in this instance was disproportionate, especially given the lack of evidence that church attendance is a leading cause of viral transmission. Lord Braid also found that the ban on worship was disproportionate at a constitutional level, insofar as churches in Scotland are independent from state interference in matters of doctrine, governance, worship and discipline. In addition, Lord Braid accepted that for the pastors bringing the case, church is not merely an optional social interaction, but is just as essential as food is for the human body.

Lord Braid’s findings only made a small practical difference in the short term. It meant that we could return to church a couple of week’s earlier than the Scottish Government planned and we could attend church over Easter. But we still have to socially distance, wear masks, and we still can’t sing. Even though I’m an introvert, I really struggle with these limitations. They feel so contrary to nature. In the long term, however, Lord Braid’s findings are incredibly important. There is now a legal precedent supporting the right to hold and to participate in gathered worship. This is some comfort in a culture which is very rapidly running away from its Reformation roots.

When I first arrived in Scotland in 2018, I observed that the church scene here is ‘fractious’. I think the last year has only exacerbated that. Many Christians were unhappy that some pastors raised a Judicial Review in the first place, arguing that this is contrary to the spirit of passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 which call Christians to render obedience to the state. There is a great divide over whether gathered worship can be virtual or whether it must be physical, and this divide not only separates different churches, but also cuts through congregations. I have become more convinced of how essential gathered worship is and how important it is to defend this, and this has been underlined for me in the way that it is impossible to enjoy the full means of grace—not only preaching but also baptism and the Lord’s Supper—in a virtual setting.

The vaccine rollout is proceeding quickly in the UK. With everyone over the age of 50 having been offered at least one dose of a vaccine, hopefully the worst is behind us. But we still have a long way to go as a society and as Christians. I’m conscious that many people are hurt, afraid and in many cases angry. I was born two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putting aside the tragedy of September 11, I have grown up in a relatively peaceful, stable world. The last year has reminded me just how much the world needs Jesus. My prayer is that churches across Scotland—and indeed the entire world—will lead the way. My hope is that we will not view others as viral vectors or biological hazards, but as precious people made in the image of God, and will show them the love of Jesus by welcoming them into the church with wide smiles and open arms. I long for people to experience the truth that life is more than the avoidance of illness and death, and that the abundance of life is found in sacrificially serving others and Christ the Lord, who sacrificed himself for us.