It is a very great blessing that here in Scotland, the Churches have now re-opened, even if it is still with much reduced numbers. Although the re-opening was already planned for 26th March, a judicial review whose findings were published a few days ago directly impacted on that scheduled re-opening and brought it forward. The Judiciary of Scotland have published a summation of the review.
Lord Braid had been asked to review the Scottish Government’s decision to close all places of worship, albeit with some very specific exemptions. Those who requested the review noted that the closure of Churches prevented the right to worship. The Scottish Government had apparently argued that places of worship were not ‘closed’ – citing that there were exceptions to the closure. Those exemptions were very specific. My view is that this was disingenuous at best – I can assure the Scottish Government that I have not been able to go into any Catholic Church over the last three months – they were most definitely closed, even for private prayer without anyone else present.
Looking at this question of ‘closure’, Lord Braid noted this –
“It is of course true that the buildings themselves may open for certain purposes if it is safe to do so. But the issue is not whether the buildings which are used as places of worship may physically open their doors but whether they can be used for the purpose for which (as the name suggests) they were intended – for worship. There can be no doubt that places of worship may not open for worship and in that sense it is jejune at best, misleading at worst, to state that places of worship remain open. They do not.”
It has long been argued that the Churches have been subject to quite severe restrictions which effectively exceeded those existing in other places – in shops, for example. Lord Braid made the comparison between Churches and jury centres, noting the mitigation in place there which allowed those centres to continue functioning.
Ultimately, he concluded –
“I conclude that the respondents have failed to show that no less intrusive means than the Regulations were available to address their aim of reducing risk to a significant extent. Standing the advice they had at the time, they have not demonstrated why there was an unacceptable degree of risk by continuing to allow places of worship which employed effective mitigation measures and had good ventilation to admit a limited number of people for communal worship. They have not demonstrated why they could not proceed on the basis that those responsible for places of worship would continue to act responsibly in the manner in which services were conducted, and not open if it was not safe to do so; in other words, why the opening of churches could not have been left to guidance. Even if I am wrong in reaching that conclusion, the respondents have in any event not demonstrated why it was necessary to ban private prayer, the reasons which were given for that recommendation being insufficient to withstand even the lowest degree of scrutiny. For these reasons, I have therefore concluded that the Regulations, having failed the third stage of the Bank Mellat test, are not a proportionate interference with the article 9 rights of the petitioners and additional party.”
In other words, the Scottish Government – even if with good intentions regarding public health – had exceeded what they were permitted in law to do, breaching the right to worship as defined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, by introducing restrictions which were disproportionate. And so the Churches were allowed to re-open.
Now that the Churches have re-opened, it remains to be seen how busy they will become, especially once the dispensation from attending Mass is revoked.
I read some posts this morning which fear that attendance will ultimately be reduced, the primary reason for this being simply that people have gotten out of the habit of coming to Mass; and also because the availability of Mass streamed online is perceived to be just as good as attending physically.
My hope would be that for most people, going to Mass is considerably more than mere habit, that it is something we actively want to do.
I know that for a great many people, these past months have been very difficult. One acquaintance has already noted that he, too, has found it exceptionally hard to be cut off from the Mass and the Sacraments. I suspect this has been a common experience for many people.
This morning, I was able to go to Confession for the first time in three months, which was a great blessing. A number of Priests – and our Bishop – were present to hear confessions over a period of several hours. I did notice, however, that there were very few people present, and I was there for some time. That concerned me a little – I hope it was nothing more that people being unaware of the availability of the Sacrament, coupled with already having plans for a Saturday morning. All the same, it isn’t just me who hasn’t been to Confession for several months – this will be the common experience.
Along with the question of how many Catholics will ultimately return to the communal practice of our Faith, there is also a further question; does this judicial review mean we can expect that the Churches will not be similarly closed in future?