The writer is an uk politician and former leader of the liberal democrats

Last sunday, i physically went back to church for the first time in more than six months. we tentatively opened our doors and it was fantastic to see people again.

Back near the start of lockdown, zoom and youtube streaming were a bit more exciting, and it was a novelty to attend virtual church in your pyjamas. i missed meeting my church family in person and the marvellous new coffee machine in our renovated church kitchen. but i took the view that church buildings themselves are not sacred (ours is a modern building that would not win any awards for architecture) and as long as the church body kept meeting in some form that would be enough.there were reports of hordes of people joining online services all over the world, many of whom had not set foot in a physical church for years.

Yet over the past few months, the physical closure of churches has troubled me. now, as covid-19 cases rise and we await new lockdown measures in england, i feel strongly that churches should not be asked to close again.

There have been some reassuring noises, but as a comparison, the whole of the republic of ireland was moved up on tuesday to level three of its five tier plan. this is not even the highest level of lockdown, but the rules specify irish church services must move back online. worshippers are facing another indefinite period of isolation.

Another concern is that churches meet many community needs other than worship and these have had to be scaled back or stopped. churches have been finding a range of creative ways to help out, acting as food banks, making nhs scrubs, and taking supplies to the elderly, housebound and vulnerable.

When pubs were allowed to open before churches in the summer, it made me think about the governments priorities, and the sidelining of the importance of our spiritual, nearly 900 church leaders have signed a letter to the uk prime minister and first ministers of the devolved administrations, calling on them to keep churches open whatever comes next. they expressed grave concern at policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life.

One consequence of people not seeing gps in person has been that it is much harder to spot mental health concerns. the same is true when church members cannot gather. it is easier to appear happy and smiley on a zoom call than in person, but people may be struggling mentally or spiritually.

When so many of our certainties have been stripped away, people need the solace of faith. during lockdown the tablet newspaper reported a study that found google searches for prayer had skyrocketed in the pandemic. the conclusion was rather dismissive: that humans have a tendency to use religion to cope with crisis.yet faith is simply the act of placing trust in something.we have trusted the nhs to treat us when we have been sick, and, to varying and decreasing degrees, we have trusted the government and its experts to guide us.

Of course, we also have a duty to keep one another safe, and there may be circumstances where churches are indeed forced to close again. churches have shown they can open safely, with sanitiser, masks and social distancing. closing them should be a last resort. by forcing us into our homes, the virus has stripped us of part of what makes us human: relationships; the ability to look into each others eyes, share moments of joy and grief, and pick up non-verbal clues that something isnt quite right. it has reduced our horizons but, at the same time, it has forced us to think more about the big questions that are usually pushed aside in lifes bustle.

Our ministers and scientists need to understand that although the buildings themselves are not sacred, the relationships and bonds that are developed within them truly are.