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Government putting churches “at the back of the queue”, says Cardinal

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster has said it looks like the government is putting business before religion in the way it is easing the lockdown.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols told the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme today that with many shops being allowed to resume trading there should now be a phased re-opening of churches with social distancing measures put in place.

The government says it is working with faith leaders to allow people to return to places of worship.

Cardinal Nichols told the BBC the importance of faith was being marginalised.

“What has been quite provocative to me is the though that on the 15th of June on Victoria Street [by Westminster RC cathedral] people can go into Waterstones and browse around the bookshop but on the other side of the street the doors of Westminster Cathedral will remain locked,” he said.

“I can see no consistency there.”

FULL TRANSCRIPT – BBC RADIO 4 SUNDAY PROGRAMME WITH ED STOURTON:

ES: ‘Lift your eyes from the lockdown’, a psalm re-written for our times. Earlier in the programme we heard criticism from Sikhs of the way the government has approached reopening of places of worship. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, will be addressing the same subject in his sermon today and he is on the line. Good morning.”

VN: Good, morning, Ed.

ES: And what will you be saying?

VN: Well, I want to say that we have well understood the government’s decision to close churches and places of worship in order to protect life. But the pattern of the lifting of restrictions is now getting to the point where we can see no coherent reason why a phased re-opening of churches shouldn’t begin very soon. That’s not talking about filling Westminster Cathedral with 2,000 people but it’s about giving people access to their place of prayer where they can go and sit quietly in a place that’s been cleaned with proper supervision and with social distancing. We think that time is right and we think that the taskforce is coming to that view as well. But it needs a push, and I want to give it a good strong push.

ES: Let me ask you about the taskforce, because when we put this to the government they told us, and I’m quoting here ‘we’re working in partnership with our faith leaders through our taskforce to develop guidance that will enable the safe and phased re-opening of places of worship. And you are indeed on that taskforce – what’s been going on?

VN: I think that’s an accurate statement. We’ve had drafts of the guidance that will be issued. We’ve had reasonably well-organised meetings, working obviously under a great deal of pressure, but we’re not getting across the line. And I think what has been quite provocative actually to me is the thought that on the 15th of June on Victoria Street [by Westminster RC cathedral] people can go into Waterstones and browse around the bookshop but on the other side of the road the doors of Westminster Cathedral will remain locked.

I can see no consistency there. And it feels to many people of faith that the importance and the contribution of faith to individual lives, to family lives and to society is either not understood or is being marginalised.

ES: Are you effectively saying that the government is putting, I suppose, business before religion. Is that the essence of it?

VN: Well, that’s what it looks like. And I quite understand the importance of getting the economy going but what we need underneath all of this is a fresh appreciation of the dignity of each person which actually is fed and nurtured and arises from religious belief. Let me put it this way, you know – we see the appreciation for nurses, for bus drivers, for bin lorry men. There’s a new appreciation of ordinary, everyday work, ordinary everyday people, and that is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of this country. So, if we are going to build something better for the future we need places of worship that are open, that are thriving and that give a life blood into the society as a whole. That’s the important point and that should be starting very, very soon.

ES: On one practical point – if you look at the front pages of this morning’s newspapers there’s a real debate going on at the moment about whether lockdown is being eased too early, with some scientists suggesting that is indeed the case. Does that argue for caution, and isn’t there a danger you muddy those waters by raising this issue at the moment.

VN: No, of course it needs caution, and no, I’m not saying that we just throw open the doors and go back to where we were at the beginning of March. What we are looking for is careful, phased, safe opening of churches but they shouldn’t be at the back of the queue. It’s more important than that. And of course the comment this morning is that the scientific evidence is not totally clear and in the end these are political decisions. And we’ve got a poll this morning saying that the majority of people in this country would welcome a phased opening of churches. It is complicated, but we for the past three weeks have got good solid professional advice as to how to manage the opening of churches. We’ve shared this in the task force, and I want to get this across the line as soon as possible.

ES: If you are, as you put it, at the back of the queue, what does that tell you about the way government views religion?

VN: Well, if it’s true, and I think that remains to be seen, if it is true, and if it is a political judgement, then it’s very disappointing and I think shows the limitation of the vision that’s needed to recreate our society. Society does not consist of individuals, technology and the state. Society is actually made up of local communities and at the heart of local communities, playing an important part of them are places of worship. And we’ve got to rebuild our society from the bottom up. We have to take a whole new stance towards distance for example. We’re all handling distance differently, and there are many advantages in the way we are handling distance, but society has got to be locally-based, it’s got to have strong roots and that’s why churches and places of faith are very important.

ES: Cardinal Vincent Nichols, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Transcript by Joseph Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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