James Somerville-Meikle: The fact that Sir David Amess was denied the extreme rite is a great sadness for Catholics like me – and invites change.


James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs of the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

Covid has turned all of our lives upside down in so many ways.

The disruption caused by the virus was all too clear in schools, hospitals and main streets. But it wasn’t just the physical infrastructure of our society that was affected by the winds of the pandemic. It has eradicated many of the social norms that supported our way of life.

Unwritten, often unspoken rules on how to behave – built up over generations – collided with a wave of new regulations as the government scrambled to control the virus.

In many cases these state-backed rules were the polar opposite of our social norms. Loved ones were not allowed to hug, neighbors and friends were not allowed to visit, and even stopping for a chat risked a warning from the police.

With the loosening of restrictions, many of our social norms are returning. But it is clear that in some areas the damage is greater than others, and work must be done to prevent them from being wiped out forever.

One of these social norms concerns the way we treat priests and other ministers of religion and the degree to which we give them the opportunity to carry out their work in our communities.

Like so many people, I was deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Sir David Amess a month ago today. As a Catholic, what made the news a little sadder was the fact that Sir David’s pastor was unable to give him the final rite on the day of his death.

For Catholics like Sir David, whose faith was at the center of his life, receiving the extreme rite is something of great importance. It is the anointing given by priests to those who are seriously ill and considered close to death.

According to reports, Sir David’s pastor learned of the attack and went to the place where the surgical meeting took place. However, officers on the spot prevented him from reaching Sir David as he was denied permission to enter the crime scene.

It is difficult to say if the same situation would have occurred before Covid. Understanding of the importance of priests and other ministers of religion to their congregations had waned before the pandemic. But it is clear that the strict rules of Covid regulations have helped push social norms in this area even further towards breaking.

At various times during the pandemic, places of worship were closed and restrictions on religious services were imposed. Indeed, it was found that the Scottish government acted illegally and unconstitutional in its continued insistence on keeping places of worship closed in Scotland earlier this year.

There were also, unfortunately, times when priests and other ministers of worship were denied access to the sick and dying. This was an all too familiar story in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices across the country, especially at the start of the pandemic. The strict rules of Covid have had the effect of frightening everyone to the point that respect for religious opinions was too soon set aside.

While some care providers have gone to great lengths to secure the price of the visits, others have not. I know of at least one hospital that has completely banned priests from visiting patients and insisted that any interaction should be conducted via iPad.

It is fair to say that there have been times in the past 18 months when religious observance has not been treated as the fundamental freedom required by the European Convention on Human Rights or as our own previously recognized social norms. It makes improving religious literacy among policy makers and civil servants even more important to ensure that social norms are quickly re-established in the wake of the pandemic.

Peers will soon have the opportunity to discuss this in the House of Lords. Baroness Stowell, a conservative peer and former leader of the Lords, has tabled an amendment to the Law on Police, Crime, Sentences and Courts on ministers of religion who have access to crime scenes.

The amendment was presented to “test the expectations of the police procedure” in the light of what happened with Sir David Amess. It would establish the presumption that the policeman responsible for a crime scene would allow a minister of worship to enter to perform religious rituals or prayers associated with death.

Stowell indicated that he does not want to force a vote on the amendment, and instead wants to use the debate to clarify the correct procedure and behavior in these situations. However, a number of colleagues and MPs have publicly stated that they would like to see a change in the law in this area with the so-called “Amess Amendment” incorporated into the law book.

Whether or not new legislation is needed perhaps depends on the police’s willingness to change and re-establish previously accepted social norms in this area. It also depends on how the government frontbench in the House will react to this amendment.

Following the killing of Sir David, it emerged that the College of Policing, which oversees a portion of police training and development, has no national guidance in place regarding clerical ministers who have access to crime scenes. Perhaps this is not surprising, given how rare these cases are and how strong social norms in this regard had previously been. But now the police should consider reviewing training practices and issuing guidelines.

We cannot allow another situation such as the one involving Sir David to repeat itself. While Sir David’s priest was at least able to pray beyond the police cordon of the attack, he was denied the chance to be with Sir David in person in those last, precious moments. For Catholics, and for other people who have faith, this is a cause of great sadness.

For Sir David, whose Catholic faith motivated his life of public service, there may be few better legacies than helping to restore social norms around respect for people’s faith in society.


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