London police shut down a Good Friday liturgy. Here's what happened

News: UK

London Metropolitan Police on Friday interrupted a Good Friday liturgy at Christ the King Polish Catholic Church April 2. Police said the gathering was unlawful, and dispersed the assembled worshippers before the liturgy could be concluded.

What happened

Police arrived Good Friday evening at Christ the King Church in South London’s Balham neighborhood amid the Veneration of The Cross.

Christ the King serves London’s expatriate Polish community, and the Good Friday liturgy was being celebrated in Polish.

Police said the gathering was “unfortunately unlawful” because of the number of people in attendance, and that worshippers would need to go home or be fined. They were also told they must provide their information to police, or run the risk of arrest.

“It is Good Friday, and I appreciate you would like to worship, but this gathering is unlawful, so please may you leave the building now,” an officer tells the congregation.

In the video, worshippers can be seen leaving the church while police stand in the sanctuary.

No one at the parish was fined.

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What police said

A statement issued April 3 from the Wandsworth division of the Metropolitan Police:

At around 17:00 hours on Friday, 2 April, officers were called to a report of crowds of people outside a church in Balham High Road.

Officers attended and found a large number people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced.

We are particularly concerned about the risk of transmission of the Covid-19 virus as a result of large indoor gatherings at which people are not socially distanced and some are not wearing masks. At such, officers made the decision that it was not safe for that particular service to continue.

Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, officers engaged with the priest outside the church and were invited to address the congregation. No fixed penalty notices were issued.

Ahead of Easter weekend, police warned Londoners not to violate social distancing guidelines. Protests across England over a crime and policing bill in Parliament led to arrests in London and other U.K. cities.

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What Christ the King Church said

A statement issued April 3 from Christ the King Church:

“We believe...that the police have brutally exceeded their powers by issuing their warrant for no good reason, as all government requirements have been met.

We believe municipal police officials have been misinformed about the current place of worship guidelines, claiming that the reason for their intervention is the continuing ban on public celebration in places of worship in London due to a lockdown on January 4, 2021.

We regret that the rights of the faithful have been wronged on such an important Day for every believer, and that our worship has been profaned. We informed the superiors of the Polish Catholic Mission in England and Wales about this incident. We asked the police authorities to explain the incident and we are waiting for their response.”

Was the liturgy breaking the law?

Liturgical and other worship services are permitted in the United Kingdom. 

Social distancing norms require that worshippers keep 2 meters from anyone not living in their household or “support bubble,”  or 1 meter if wearing a mask. Worshippers are not permitted to mingle after liturgical services.

Christ the King appeared to require worshippers to register for the Good Friday liturgy and other Triduum and Easter liturgies.

U.K. norms determine the number of people permitted at liturgies according to a “risk assessment” of the building where worship is being held.

It is not clear from available video and other photographs whether worshippers were observing U.K. social distancing rules. Altar boys can be seen seated more closely together than rules permit for worshippers, but their role in the liturgy might have permitted them to be seated according to the discretion of the celebrant.

How Church leaders have responded

A vademecum from the bishops’ conference of England and Wales set stricter norms for Holy Week than the U.K.’s secular rules, including the obligation that anyone without a legitimate exemption should wear a face mask in church. There has been no indication from ecclesiastical authorities whether Christ the King Church was in violation of those norms.

Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, in which Christ the King is located, visited the church on Holy Saturday, and reported the church’s rector is following up on the matter with London police. The archbishop also reportedly emphasized his solidarity and closeness to the mostly working-class Polish community of the church.

The Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales has not yet issued a statement.

What is Christ the King?

Christ the King Church is not a parish of the Archdiocese of Southwark, where it is located. It is instead a church of the Polish Catholic Mission, a chaplaincy established and overseen by the Polish bishops’ conference for expatriate Catholic Poles.

Roughly 800,000 Poles live and work in the United Kingdom, though that number has declined amid the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.