Covid is no excuse to strip away religious freedoms
Christ the King, Balham, were right to defy the police and break the law
Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann (geralt) via Pixabay
The Roman Empire was out in full force on Friday night. This time in London, this time wearing the peaked caps and black jackets of the Metropolitan Police.
Christ the King Polish Catholic Church—located in Balham, Wandsworth, and part of the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales which ministers to the Polish diaspora—was midway through the Liturgy of the Passion when officers entered the church, declaring the worship unlawful and threatening the congregation with fines or arrests if they did not leave.
The Liturgy of the Passion (not quite a Mass, much more than a service) is the most sacred and pivotal moment in the Church’s year. It’s a struggle to explain for non-Christians the extent of the meaning, but it cannot be overemphasised how important the Passion is. This is the moment; this is the sacrifice beyond sacrifice. History turns on the Passion, humanity lives or dies because of the Passion and all the world’s pain, brokenness, and grief is hung there on the Cross. And the police called it ‘unlawful’…
Reactions were quick on Christian Twitter (yes, that’s a thing). Luke de Pulford, who shared the video of the police officers ordering the congregation to leave, called it ‘absolutely disgraceful’. Giles Fraser, broadcaster and Twitter’s bolshiest priest, encouraged the Catholic Church to sue the Met.
There’ll be some, of course, who point out that Christ the King were apparently breaking the law. Those who do need to brush up on Catholicism’s history and regard for laws which ban communion. More to the point, the only witnesses accusing the congregation of breaking the law are the Met themselves, who vaguely state there were ‘a large number of people inside the church’ but give no figures.
What constitutes large? Ten? Fifty? A hundred? Where two or three are gathered, remember. The parish have said they believe the Met to have ‘brutally exceeded their powers’ and say the officers were misinformed about current guidelines. It’s the police’s word against the parish, and confidence in the Metropolitan Police has never been lower.
Even if the congregation knowingly violated current restrictions on numbers or social distancing practice, there remains the case that the police were wrong to break up the liturgy and the parish were right to follow historical precedent and gather to receive communion and venerate the Cross. Context is king, and the Met show their ignorance through criminalising Catholic worship and reducing the Passion to a ‘meeting’.
Christianity is a religion founded in illegality. Christ was arrested and murdered by a state for breaking the law. Christianity was and remained illegal, an underground and persecuted Church, for the first 250-odd years of its existence. 10 of the 12 apostles were murdered by the Empire, as were 13 (maybe 20) of the popes up until decriminalisation by Constantine in 313 AD.
Catholicism in Britain and its persecution is something not discussed often enough, or even known about by the historically illiterate. It is worth repeating: thousands of Catholics were fined, arrested, tortured, and even executed by the state during the Reformation. Worship was broadly criminalised for centuries afterwards, with some restrictions not fully lifted until the 19th Century; Catholics couldn’t become MPs until 1829 or attend Oxbridge until the 1850s. Throughout this all Catholics continued to hold communion in secret, underground—sometimes literally—and out of sight, or out in the fields and on moors, defying the law and defying the state.
Thirdly, this is a Polish Catholic Church specifically for the Polish diaspora, many of whom came to Britain after the accession of Poland to the EU in 2004 and have lived or are children of those who lived under communist rule. Then, the state published anti-religious propaganda, clergy and laity were persecuted and arrested, and Eastern Rite Catholics were forcibly converted.
How are the Met any different from Soviet states restricting the freedom of both Catholic and Orthodox churches, or modern-day China driving Catholics underground to celebrate the Eucharist in secret? The comparison may seem extreme but this is where police interference and overreach will lead—a police state where freedom of religion and worship become rarities not rights.
But there’s hope. Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise, the stone will be rolled away, and Christ will rise. Nothing—not death, not empires, not busybody policemen—can hold him.
Disclaimer: This article was written on Saturday the 3rd of April 2021 in light of the events in Wandsworth on Friday the 2nd, but published at a later date.