Should churches be kept open?

Last week, in the Republic of Ireland, the four Roman Catholic Archbishops wrote to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin requesting a meeting to talk about lifting the ban on people attending religious services under Ireland’s Level 3 Coronavirus restrictions. Level 3 is now in place for all 26 counties – with a high likelihood that it will go to Level 4 or 5.

In the North, religious services are permitted, highlighting the difference between ROI and the UK on this issue. Apparently, Ireland is currently the only place in Europe with such restrictions on public worship in place.

From a Catholic perspective being unable to attend Mass is not just an inconvenience, but strikes at the core of Catholic practice. The Archbishop’s letter talks of Mass not being simply a gathering of people ‘but profound expressions of who we are as a Church’.

This conversation echoes one happening in the UK. At the end of September a letter signed by 700 church leaders (including quite a few Presbyterian Church in Ireland ministers) across the UK was sent to Boris Johnston and the leaders of devolved parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, urging them not to stop people from attending church services.

As far as I understand, it was signed on a personal basis rather than being a formal submission from denominations and church networks.

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill Cc: Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Members of the Welsh Parliament, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly

24 September 2020

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore, we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whetherthe UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society –physically and spiritually –than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting thosewho truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Yours sincerely,

It is a debate worth having. What do you think? There are no easy right and wrong answers here.

Is this unreasonable special pleading by churches? Is it in danger of being perceived as putting ‘our’ interests (the need to meet for worship) above the health of others? Where does government start to ‘overstep’ its role? At what point does government concern to protect public health (and in Ireland a chronically underfunded health service and woefully inadequate ICU capacity) become overly destructive of other critical aspects of life?

Notice that neither the Catholic Archbishops nor the UK church leaders are talking about economic damage. This is very welcome. While of course crucial, evaluating policy via a narrow economic lens is profoundly destructive. Rather, the UK letter talks of the ‘dehumanising’ effect on people’s lives and, like the Archbishops, that gathering to worship God is essential for human life to flourish.

Ian Paul is someone I read and highly respect. He was interviewed on Sky News about the UK letter which he signed. Here’s his take. (And it’s very well worth reading his reflections on communicating in this sort of public context on his blog here). And see how he well be brings the conversation around to hope, fear and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

6 thoughts on “Should churches be kept open?

  1. Patrick, thank you for raising the subject and for sharing the video. I think Ian Paul did a very good job in that interview.
    It is a very good point to consider since we are not “just” flesh and blood but also spiritual and relational beings.
    As you said, here in the Republic the restrictions come as a result of the fact that the government has not invested in the health system for a good while.
    As the letter says, it is important to look at the bigger picture. We might end up with no virus, physically we will be well but with loads of people suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, etc.

    Regarding churches staying open, the issue for me is the following.
    With all the restrictions that we had to follow before the introduction of Level 3, it seems to me that we were still deprived of meeting in a meaningful way. No singing, no communion, only allowed to sit where one is told, no talking after the service. I know of people who found this very hard and preferred not to attend.
    Also, it is not the same to meet in Christ Church Cathedral, which is quite safe regarding space than to meet in church buildings that are small. In those cases to keep social distancing is far more challenging.
    So, when Ian Paul talks about church, is he referring to churches that have their own big buildings? If churches are allowed to be open, what does qualify as a church? does a small fellowship that meets in a house count as a church or should they follow the guidelines of households?

    Personally, I would like to see church buildings open not only on Sundays, but other days of the week, to allow people to go in when they need to spend sometime in quietness.
    There are people who might not be ready to attend a Sunday morning service but they would benefit from having a space where they can find some rest.

  2. Thanks Ana – good points about how reduced the experience of meeting together is, and the context of the meeting space. Ian Paul is C of E so is probably thinking of long established church buildings.
    We haven’t got to meet there at all since March. I can see how Mass not happening is especially difficult for the Catholic Church. As I understand it, places of worship are allowed to be open in Level 3 for private prayer.

  3. Hi Patrick,

    Yes, I agree that Ian Paul did a very good job on the interview. Speaking to media can be a very intimidating thing to do if trying to keep the subject on spiritual things.

    In Trim we had been able to resume Sunday gatherings from July and even went to two services for two weeks before moving to level 3. There is a tension I feel as a church leader. On the one hand, it is clear that Scripture places a strong emphasis on the gathering of believers (Acts 2:42ff; Hebrews 10:25; etc). We should do that as often as we can. There is huge encouragement singing together, praying together, breaking bread together, and being fed from Gods Word together. Their absence makes us ache for them.

    On the other hand, Scripture also speaks strongly about the Christian’s submission to the governments ruling authority (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). It is staggering that the Apostles Peter and Paul speak as they do about ruling governments. Take Peter’s words, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme….Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” The emperor was Nero!

    How do we live in that tension? Love your neighbour. This is not a cop-out. Nor does it address everything we could do. But it is something we can each do. We must. I don’t believe we are at the stage yet where we push to meet against government guidelines. There is so much we CAN do in order to be God’s people in the world, to be the church in the world. We can read Scripture, pray, phone, Zoom, visit, drink tea, lead, encourage, spur on towards love and good deeds, disciple, study, serve, drink coffee!

    All this considered I wonder if we have considered the thought that God has pushed Christians out the door of the church building to go out into the world? Have Christians who are comfortable meeting in the safety of numbers together been brought face to face with their distant relationship with their neighbour? God has been telling us we are on mission in the world. Now He has put us there to do just that. I think this is a great opportunity to simply phone or visit our neighbours. Be there. Listen. Ask. Share. Smile.

  4. Greetings Ciaran. Great to hear from you. ‘Their absence makes us ache for them’ captures that loss of meeting in a nutshell. Love your perspectives on love and mission – looking outward and serving others locally. I know many people are busier than ever, but also perhaps a good time, if not done already, for churches to volunteer / get involved in local community pandemic responses to help the lonely, more at risk etc. Looks like we need to think long haul and not a temporary inconvenience.

  5. Just to provide a different country’s perspective: church services here in Singapore have all been online since March this year and only recently have been allowed to open face-to-face, under strict controls. The church leaders, including the Catholic Archbishop, have all been in favour of this, since church services were actually the source of the initial clusters in the country.

    Now that the virus is under control here (contrary to the implication of the letter you quote, where they questioned “whether the UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. “) and churches are opening up again, church leaders are finding their parishioners don’t need the in-person experience to receive spiritual sustenance.

    Perhaps churches need to recalibrate their structure for the long run. This pandemic will make gatherings hazardous long after a vaccine is ready. For example, we here receive a lot of support and spiritual nourishment from our House Group, where we can meet together safely. Could the UK churches look at this model more closely instead of pushing for the outdated in-person mass-consumption approach?

  6. Interesting to hear what’s happening in Singapore – thanks. When you say leaders are finding parishioners don’t need communal gatherings, does this mean that many people are simply not returning when they could do so? I agree that churches will have to think longer term strategy and not only ‘can we get back to meeting again’.

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