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Reform Magazine | December 6, 2023

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Closing churches: A message from the ancestors

Closing churches: A message from the ancestors

John Ellis asks what our spiritual forebears would think about our response to the pandemic

One activity that grew during lockdown was criticising historical figures for their choices. With effortless moral superiority, we condemn their complicity in behaviours we would never have tolerated. It is not a hard game to play as the long dead do not have the temerity to answer back. My body was not built for sport, but I fancy I would have won every tennis match I attempted if my opponent had not ever been able to hit the ball back.

But just suppose we turn the tables and invite our forebears to comment on our choices during a pandemic, from their perspective. This can only be speculation and no more secure than us imagining ourselves into their world. Nonetheless there are two groups of forebears in the traditions now represented by the United Reformed Church whom I would be intrigued to hear from. I covet their comments on how we reacted in the middle of 2020 to one sort of church closure and then how we have reacted in the middle of 2021 to another.

Suddenly in 2020, we were ordered by the government to close the churches. We were told the reasons, recognising that the pandemic was unprecedented. This was the first compulsory closure since the reign of King John – and even then it was the Pope, not the government, who decided.

Enter, at this point, our ancestors from the 17th century. The ones who were not prepared to worship according to government requirements in official Anglican churches. The ones who were prepared to take life-and-death risks for the principle of choosing how to worship for themselves. I hope the Avenue Church in Newton Abbot (URC/Methodist) still celebrates Bradley Pit, that hollow in the woods outside the town where the Nonconformists met secretly for worship…

John Ellis is a former Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly and Vice-Chairman of the URC History Society. He writes in a personal capacity


This is an extract from an article published in the September 2021 edition of Reform

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