Church responds to misleading column in The Herald

Church members have been expressing their dismay and distress after reading a column in The Herald newspaper that accused the Church of issuing guidance that is cruel to people in vulnerable groups. The opinion piece attacked the Church for its guidance to congregations on reopening buildings, which have been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We disagree entirely with the author's interpretation of the guidance and reject completely her characterisation of our Church and its people.

Empty Church

To set the record straight, the Principal Clerk, the Chair of the General Trustees, the Convener of the Assembly Trustees and the Chief Officer have sent the letter below to The Herald.

Dear Sir,

We write in response to the Opinion piece by Rosemary Goring which appeared on Wednesday 17 June and its utter misrepresentation both of the Church of Scotland itself and of the guidance issued to our congregations last week on the anticipated re-opening of church buildings.

Accepting that Ms Goring is entitled to express her personal opinion, even if in gratuitously offensive terms, we nevertheless take issue with the accuracy of what she has reported. We do not recognise our Church, then or now, in what she says.

She says that parishioners with serious underlying health conditions and those over 70 are explicitly urged not to attend church services, and characterises this as “crass”, “cruel” and “negligent”. This is simply not true.

The guidance in fact suggests that those over the age of 70 should consider carefully whether they should be attending church, and that anyone who is in the extremely vulnerable category, who has been advised by the NHS to shield at home, would be best advised not to come to church for the time being. This follows the clear and unequivocal advice which has been consistently given by the Scottish Government, the NHS and the Chief Medical Officer to the effect that anyone who is in the clinically extremely vulnerable group should stay at home.

It is also consistent with the advice published by all faith communities to their members. With them, we echo the sentiment expressed in the Government guidance:

“We would not ask you to do this if it was not necessary. We believe that it is needed to save lives and protect the NHS”.

Our published guidance is also explicit in expecting congregations to take steps to ensure that those people who are in the vulnerable category must be appropriately supported in their choice to participate in church life in a way that meets their own individual needs and preferences whilst safeguarding their own health, safety and welfare and those of the wider congregation.

It is perfectly legitimate for Ms Goring to express her view that we should all be able to assess risks and choose for ourselves – regardless of age and health – whether or not to follow medical and Government guidance in the current crisis. We do not agree with this view, and we imagine that most of your readers also do not agree with it. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would result in the collapse of the consensual approach to the crisis which has been taken by both Scottish and UK Governments and would necessitate the imposition of legislative compulsion.

We agree with those in government that such an outcome is not in keeping with the liberal traditions which are at the core of our national identity. Whilst our governance through a system of church courts is inevitably hierarchical our mindset and character as a church are firmly focused on individual liberty. For this reason, also, the guidance which we have issued is not prescriptive, and it is risible to present it as a “decree” and assert that “vicious” reprisals lie in wait for those who do not adhere to it.

The fact that the Scottish Government’s evidence-led route map through and out of the crisis only allows places of worship to re-open to extended groups when we reach Phase 3 is a clear indicator of the clinically-assessed risks to the health of those attending church services.

There have been a number of documented cases throughout the world of coronavirus outbreaks associated with church services and it is beyond doubt that unmanaged church attendance can constitute a threat to the lives of those attending, and people in their wider contact circles. We have a concern for the holistic health of our parishioners, body and soul, and we stand by the guidance which we have issued as a proportionate, practical and compassionate tool-kit which respects expert medical advice and enables our buildings across the country to re-open when it is safe to do so.

In the days that followed the lockdown announcement, we have seen creativity across our congregations on a level that has not been replicated in living memory. Congregations have come together, in absence, to support each other and those around them. Many congregations have opened their buildings to those in need, and have provided lifeline services such as foodbanks or childcare facilities for key workers. Along with creativity has come a real sense of loss as, for the first time in generations, church doors were ordered to be closed on government authority. But the church is its people, not its buildings, and we are confident that relationships that have been forged, or deepened, over the past months will serve to allow us to continue to serve our communities in the months and years ahead, regardless of how our public worship may require to be configured. Ms Goring is welcome to join us.

Yours sincerely,

Rev Dr George Whyte, Principal Clerk.

Raymond Young, chair of the General Trustees.

Rev Dr John Chalmers, Convener of the Assembly Trustees.

David Kendall, Chief Officer.