Government ponders how Faith Groups can Emerge from Lockdown

By Tim Maby, 9 June 2020

The new minister for “fire and faith” has certainly had a hot time of it since he started work at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Lord Greenhalgh has had to deal with all the difficulties of closing all places of worship and is now involved in the painful negotiation towards reopening them.

He is a minister with responsibility for building safety and communities, of which faith is an important part, as well as the fire minister. His wife gave him the nickname.  He is a practising Roman Catholic from London, who spent 16 years as a London councillor and worked for Boris Johnson as deputy mayor of London for policing and crime.

Fresh from announcing that places of worship will reopen for private prayer from Monday 15 June, he told a Religion Media Centre webinar that his taskforce was now working out how to open all places for congregational worship, as well as wedding services. He accepted, however, that some groups would not be reopening even when they were allowed to do so.

They were proceeding within Public Heath England guidelines and the earliest date that change could happen would be 4 July. Full guidance would be published as soon as possible, after a taskforce meeting this Thursday and virtual round tables with faith groups. Lord Greenhalgh’s role was to ensure that the guidance was ready and that people were engaged, so that it could be quickly adopted by all faith groups, whatever the size of their place of worship, when the time was right.

He agreed with Julie Siddiqi of the Jewish and Muslim Women’s network that it was important to allow for the huge range of places of worship, from a large mosque to a parish church in rural Somerset. He realised how the value of reopening churches for private prayer was not such an important issue for Muslims and Jews, who emphasised communal worship.

He had asked the chief rabbi for advice on outdoor ceremonies, such as weddings. Already he recognised that some faiths had worked out ways of holding funeral services outdoors as well.

During the negotiations, there had been some conflict about who should represent the different faiths, particularly Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

Dr Jasjit Singh from Leeds University asked whether there was a plan to disseminate information to faith groups with no overarching hierarchies, where representation was difficult. Sikh representation on the taskforce has been hotly contested.  Lord Greenhalgh said that Lord Singh of Wimbledon, who runs a network of Sikh organisations,  had sent him a page on the Sikh faith. He realised the importance of the Sikh Council and Sikh Assembly as networking organisations and he had an understanding of the variety of gudwaras in the country.

He was asked about the challenges of ensuring fair representation in diverse communities, with one questioning why there were no women on the places of worship taskforce. Lord Greenhalgh explained this had to do with existing faith hierarchies which were generally male, although the Bishop of London Sarah Mullally did sit on the group, and round tables always involved a much more diverse group of representatives.

Many places of worship are in financial difficulties because of the coronavirus, with a loss of income from activities and continuing costs. He was asked whether the government could help them, perhaps by removing VAT on building repairs. Lord Greenhalgh said finance was frequently a concern at round tables and he would look at the suggestion.

In the webinar he was asked why places of worship were not classed as important as “essential”, like shops, which had been allowed to open earlier. Lord Greenhalgh said it was a great achievement that places of worship would open for private prayer on 15 June, the same day as non-essential shops. He said there is no indication that the government did not see faith as absolutely critical to the life of this country.

Meanwhile the department was working with FaithAction, a network of faith-based organisations working in the community, to contact “harder-to-reach” communities and smaller less-heard-of faith groups. Its executive director, Daniel Singleton, is involved with the places of worship task force as it has considered how to come out of the lockdown. It has seen great social action projects and much vital work relating to pastoral care and loneliness develop during this time. He was also trying to work with local initiatives such as in the West Midlands, where the mayor, Andy Street, had arranged a faith groups conference.

Suryagupta, who chairs the London Buddhist Centre, said many people in her community were not affiliated to faith, but received help through mindfulness and programmes for emotional wellbeing. It was important to include the Buddhist voice.

The Rev Dr David Muir, who co-chairs the National Church Leaders Forum, is working with churches with many black, Asian, and minority ethnic (Bame) members, to navigate the emergence from lockdown in ways that will not provoke a second pandemic, especially because a disproportionate number of Bame people had suffered from Covid-19. He appealed for the government to work with largely black Pentecostal churches to make people aware of the risks and advice. Lord Greenhalgh said this was in his in-tray and would happen.

Lord Greenhalgh praised faith groups for the amount of work they had done to keep worship and communication going for the vulnerable and needy, as well as much social action. Dr Mayank Shah, a trustee of the Neasden Hindu Temple, said that they had managed to reach three million people through the pandemic,  by web contact or by handing out food.

Shakil Ur-Rahman of the Muslim Hands charity said that working with FareShare, they had handed out half a million meals. The Rev Canon Christopher Thomas, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, announced a grant from the Albert Gubay Charitable Foundation of £1 million which was being distributed to Catholic groups through England and Wales for food banks and other critical support.

Lord Greenhalgh thanked in particular the GP Dr Mayank Shah for his work in the health service, revealing that both his parents had caught Covid-19. His mother had been taken to Charing Cross Hospital where his father had been a senior surgeon, but sadly she had died. His father had, against the odds, survived. The pandemic had taken the lives of many, he said, and he thanked health service staff for all the tremendous work that they were doing on the front line.