Bishops in England have urged the government to permit Catholics to attend public Masses during a second nationwide lockdown beginning Thursday.

The bishops issued a sharp challenge to the government after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Oct. 31 that England would enter a four-week lockdown following a surge in coronavirus cases.

On the evening of the announcement, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool said that the government’s decision to halt collective worship would cause “deep anguish.”

“Whilst we understand the many difficult decisions facing the government, we have not yet seen any evidence whatsoever that would make the banning of communal worship, with all its human costs, a productive part of combating the virus. We ask the government to produce this evidence that justifies the cessation of acts of public worship,” wrote the president and vice-president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

More than 5,000 people had signed a petition as of Nov. 2 asking the authorities to allow corporate worship as well as congregational singing. The government will respond to the petition if it gains 10,000 signatures.

The Catholic Union, a lay group dedicated to the defense of Catholic values in Parliament and public life, also criticized the restriction on public Masses.

Sir Edward Leigh, the group’s president, said: “While it’s some comfort that there is no return to the blanket church closures we saw earlier in the year, these new measures are still a huge blow to Catholics across the country. People had just got used to going to Mass with face masks and social distancing. We are now almost back to square one."

Leigh, a veteran Conservative MP, wrote to the Prime Minister Nov. 2 proposing a compromise in which the government would permit religious services as long as those attending applied online beforehand.

Other English Catholic bishops have also appealed to the Prime Minister, as well as Members of Parliament, who will vote on the new regulations Wednesday.

Bishop Marcus Stock of Leeds urged Johnson to amend the restrictions that come into force Nov. 5 to enable public worship to continue.

He argued that churches were “some of the safest places for people to be” because of stringent safety measures introduced when public Masses resumed July 4 following the first nationwide lockdown.

“There is no evidence that our churches have in any way contributed to the recent rise in the rate of COVID-19 infections,” Bishop Stock wrote in a letter dated Nov. 1.

In a letter to the Prime Minister the same day, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth welcomed the decision to permit churches to remain open for private prayer.

“I am writing because I earnestly want to ask you to amend the proposed guidance to come in on 5th November, so as to enable our churches to remain open -- with all the usual safety regimes -- for the Sacred Liturgy,” he said.

“In addition, I am writing to all the 34 MPs -- 31 of whom are Conservatives -- in our diocese to ask them to support this request, when the issue comes before Parliament on Wednesday.”

He told Johnson that he had called for a diocese-wide day of prayer and fasting for an end to the pandemic on Nov. 27.

Churches across England were forced to close March 23, but permitted to open again for private prayer from June 15.

Public worship will continue in Scotland after Nov. 5, but is currently suspended in Wales until Nov. 9.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said he was “astonished” to learn that public Masses would be suspended again in England as the Prime Minister did not mention collective worship at his press conference on Saturday.

“It is a momentous act for any political authority to seek to ban public worship across a nation,” Bishop Davies said in a Nov. 1 statement.

“No evidence has been offered to justify why the government seeks to ban public worship that invariably takes place amid some of the most stringent COVID safety measures in the whole of society.”

“The vital role which public worship has for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people in this Shrewsbury Diocese, together with faith communities across the nation, can never allow public worship to be dismissed as something non-essential.”

There have been more than a million coronavirus cases and over 46,800 related deaths throughout the United Kingdom as of Nov. 2, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham said on Twitter Nov. 1 that he had written to MPs within his diocese, asking them to challenge the government over the ban.

A priest in his diocese recently generated headlines when he said that he would be willing to be arrested rather than deny the sacraments to the people of God for a second time.

Father David Palmer, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, welcomed the bishops’ robust response to the new guidelines on Twitter.

He said: “Praise God.. the Bishops’ conference of England and Wales are challenging the lock down on Churches... thank you Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales!”