The archbishop of Canterbury has warned of the dangers of centralisation, saying local networks and communities have become more important than ever during the Covid pandemic.
Many people look instinctively “for central direction in such an acute crisis”, and the government has “determined the daily details of our lives” over recent months, Justin Welby says in an article in the Daily Telegraph written jointly with Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London.
But, he adds, “here’s our challenge for the next phase of this complex, painful and hugely challenging time: let’s place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered. Some places will get things wrong – but that is true of central leadership too.”
According to a source quoted in the Telegraph, Welby is also “deeply concerned about Christmas and the impact of the ‘rule of six’ on the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and the elderly”.
The source added: “He is concerned about families being kept apart and the knock-on effect that has, particularly on people who are on their own. The heart of the Christian faith is to love thy neighbour, which is increasingly difficult when strict rules are imposed by the centre.”
Concern about the government’s new restrictions on social interaction, which came into force on Monday, has been growing since ministers advised people to report their neighbours to the police in the case of breaches. Priti Patel, the home secretary, said two families stopping for a brief chat on the street would be breaking the law if their total numbers exceeded six.
Critics of the new rules have also warned of its potential impact on family gatherings at Christmas.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said Welby was right to point to the “huge spiritual and social significance of Christmas. I don’t think any of us in government want to be Oliver Cromwell-esque about this. We want to see families celebrate Christmas in a safe and happy way, and we want to see our churches and indeed other places of worship also join in that celebration.”
Christmas would not be cancelled, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But the rule of six is something that is clear and important, and we’ve committed to that, and we need to stick to it.”
Welby’s article was directed to the Church of England as well as the government. Clergy have complained that the archbishops of Canterbury and York have been too prescriptive during the pandemic – for example, by banning vicars from entering their own churches during lockdown.
Welby writes that the “new normal of living with Covid-19 will only be sustainable – or even endurable – if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally.
“As a country, this principle is in our DNA. In the Church of England, we have been committed to localism for centuries. Every inch of the country is part of an Anglican parish, and parish churches are woven into the fabric of their communities.”
The C of E’s national Covid recovery group had been necessary to keep clergy and congregations informed and as safe as possible. “We are not immune to the temptation to pull more decisions into the centre, to feel that ‘something is being done’. But it is a temptation that should be resisted. Often that ‘something’ might not be as effective as what could be done locally.
“We have our own hierarchies in the Church of England, but ultimately it is our churches and our clergy on the ground that are its lifeblood… Where some have felt we have made too many decisions from the centre, we recommit to empowering clergy and parishes, which are and have always been the foundation of the church.”