Should church buildings close during lockdowns?

When the first lockdown was announced on 23rd March this year, it was followed fairly swiftly by the announcement from Church of England bishops that, going beyond what was legally required or requested, that church buildings should be shut definitively. Not only were there to be no physical gatherings of congregations, clergy were not to enter, even if their clergy accommodation was next door and attached to the church building. Like many things associated with responses to Covid-19, this appeared to be a matter of signalling a commitment to a certain course of action, without any real evidence that this action would have any impact on inhibiting the spread of the disease. Something must be done, and this was Something.

Not surprisingly, there was a serious negative reaction against this, in part because of this lack of evidence, in part because of what was felt to be over-reach on the part of the bishops, and in part because there was simply no reflection on either the practical or the theological issues around the importance of physical meeting as part of what it means to be the people of God. Added to this was the anger of those for whom the physical space of a church building constituted ‘sacred space’ in a formal sense—not an understanding I entirely share, but important for some traditions within the C of E.

But when the current four-week lockdown was announced, the response from church leaders was strikingly different. First, Marcus Stock, the Catholic bishop of Leeds, wrote to the Prime Minister requesting that, this time around, places of worship be allowed to remain open and acts of worship be allowed to continue. This was followed by a more general letter from a wide range of religious leaders, headed by Vincent Nichols, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, and signed by Justin Welby, Stephen Cottrell and Sarah Mullally, the bishop of London, along with Jewish, Sikh and Muslim leaders, which offered a refreshingly robust engagement with the proposed plans for lockdown:

We have already said there is no scientific rationale for suspension of Public Worship where it is compliant with the guidance that we have worked jointly with government to establish. We believe government, and Public Health England, accept this.

Government is making decisions about what aspects of our life during this period of restrictions are essential. We believe we have demonstrated that continuation of public worship is essential, for all the reasons we have set out above.

We call on government to recognise and support this, and enable us to continue to worship safely, as part of the essential fabric of the nation.

The letter makes five strong points in favour of continuing to allow acts of public worship:

Public Worship is covid-19 secure 

We have demonstrated, by our action, that places of worship and public worship can be made safe from Covid transmission. Given the significant work we have already done, we consider there to be, now, no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship.

Public Worship is Essential to sustain our service

Without the worshipping community, our social action and support cannot be energised and sustained indefinitely. Our commitment to care for others comes directly from our faith, which must be sustained and strengthened by our meeting together in common worship.

Public Worship is necessary for social cohesion and connectedness

Increasing social scientific evidence makes clear that social connectedness, solidarity and social cohesion are key to both enabling people to stay resilient throughout restrictions due to covid-19 and central to compliance with the behaviours we need them to adopt to reduce transmission.

Public Worship is important for the Mental Health of our nation

The health benefits of attending worship are well known, and the burden of psychological and physical ill-health from isolation and during the pandemic are increasingly well understood. This is especially so for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people.

Public Worship is an essential sign of hope

From a social psychological perspective, faith communities who consistently embody behaviours and attitudes that are covid-19 safe and hopeful provide encouragement to others through modelling these behaviours and attitudes. They are part of the journey to recovery.

I found the letter striking in its confidence, its robust defence of evidence-led discussion, and its outward orientation. There have been numerous complaints that Christians asking for acts of worship to continue are selfishly requesting that they are exempt from the restrictions that others are experiencing in their activities. But that is to assume both that public acts of worship are self-serving, and that acts of worship are simply comparable to other social activities like eating out or going to the gym—neither of which is true.

There was no explanation of the complete change of tone in this letter, and I think it would have been helpful for the bishops to explain to clergy why the approach here is so different—but it is encouraging to see. A complicating part of the discussion in relation to worship is that it dovetails with wider questions about the current restrictions. There is simply no evidence that, under the current arrangements, either shops selling ‘non-essential items’ or cafes and restaurants following Covid-19 regulations have been the source of infections—so what justification is there for closing these things down? This connects with a wider concern about the use of lockdowns. Covid-19 clearly is a serious infection, considerably more serious than seasonal winter flu, but there is little evidence that we are facing a ‘second wave’ comparable to the first in April, and there is no evidence that it is lockdowns which assist in control beyond the other regulations (under the 3-tier system) already in place. In March, the peak has already passed by the time any lockdown measures could have taken place, and Tim Spector (who leads the ZOE research project on the spread of Covid-19), pointed out that the peak of recent infections had passed before this lockdown even began:

Nevertheless, opinions on the opening of church buildings are divided and, as is now customary in our social media age, people get very heated in their disagreements. Last week I experienced some unpleasant abuse and had to delete comments—from Christian leaders I knew personally, which was very sad. Within our own small group there are different views; for some, meeting and singing with others is longed for, whilst for others the last thing they want to do just now is meeting with people (possibly including some strangers) in a building.

There have been some more rational disagreements with the new approach of church leaders. One came from Pete Philips in Durham, who has been a strong advocate of the importance of virtual church, and has just edited a fascinating Grove booklet on blending online and offline church in a hybrid community, which is worth getting hold of.

Pete makes well-founded points about the lack of the ‘basilica’ in the early church:

For the first 300 years of the Church’s existence, all churches were based in someone’s home. We had no specific church buildings. So working from home wasn’t a problem – and if you needed more space, as Paul did, you hired a local meeting room like the Hall of Tyrranus (Acts 19:9).

But since taking over the basilicas under Constantine, we’ve become besotted with our buildings…

It seems strange that Paul’s exploration of the gathered church (ecclesia) is commonly interpreted to mean ‘gathered in one physical place’. There were no church buildings when Paul used this phrase. Indeed, there is scant archaeological evidence for synagogue buildings in Galilee or Judea at the time of Jesus. People gathered in courtyard houses or the village square, under a suitable tree to provide shelter, in Solomon’s Portico or in people’s homes.

A mistaken obsession with church buildings is one of the reasons why I also prohibited the use of the word ‘church’ when teaching in a theological college, since it is impossible to rid the word of associations with buildings and institutions when the term ekklesia in the New Testament does not have these associations. It is also why, in my commentary on the Book of Revelation, I note that chapters 2 and 3 are message (not ‘letters’) to the assemblies (not ‘churches’) in the seven cities John is writing to.

But I think that Pete then makes a mis-step.

Opponents of the lockdown say humanity is called to worship God, and nothing should get in the way of this. They talk of the curtailment of ministry – worship, sacraments, prayer, healing. But surely all of this is possible online? Jesus famously healed from a distance, fed a hungry crowd in an open field, preached on a hillside (or from a boat), called forth Lazarus from a tomb and allowed a woman to be healed from bleeding while he walked around the village. Jesus shows God in the wild, not a God restricted to our buildings…

During lockdown the bishops may have sought to highlight the psychological need of the people to meet together for the sake of their mental health, but again, we can do this better online. We can see one another, phone another, wave through the window as we pass. There is nothing stopping us being social.

There is much that can be done online; I have had some great moments praying for friends over Zoom, and our ‘small’ group meeting midweek has grown and been an important encouragement, lifeline even, to those involved, including me. But there are things you cannot do online, including sharing communion in the way that really matters, as a shared meal. Being social is not merely about seeing people, talking, and sharing information. We are body-soul (‘psycho-somatic’) unions as people, and being in each other’s physical presence is something that cannot be transmitted through wires and over the airwaves. This is actually less of a discussion of ecclesiology (what it means to be ‘church’) and more a discussion of anthropology (what it means to be human).

A second argument, which I think expresses common concerns, was offered by Mike Higton, also from Durham, who narrowed the issue down to one of safety in a lengthy Facebook post:

It seems that we disagree about whether churches should be open for congregational worship during the lockdown. I am one of those who think they should not. I have good friends who think they should.

My stance is, as far as I can judge, shaped by one factor more than any other. It is a factor that so dominates my view that it leaves all the other arguments in deep shade. To get to a point where those other arguments can actually be telling for me, you will need to tackle this one big central concern first.

This one big central concern is safety. If you want to sever the main cable tethering my current opinion in place, you will need to convince me that opening all our churches for congregational worship during lockdown will be safe.

Mike then sets out the specific criteria which would demonstrate that such meetings were safe, including expert opinion from someone who could offer research and statistic modelling which demonstrated beyond any reasonable scientific doubt that corporate physical worship represented no risk.

For me, this raised a number of question, which I put to Mike. First, why is this question of absolute safety one we are applying to Covid-19, when both in history and in different parts of the world this is not the primary or determining question? People take risks in order to meet to worship in all sorts of circumstances. Why for us is this case an exception? In particular, meeting together has clearly been a risk factor in every previous winter, and church meetings will surely have been a source of catching seasonal winter flu which will have led to deaths in previous years. Covid-19 is clearly more serious than flu—but why are we making an absolute, rather than a relative, distinction? And, if Covid-19 is uniquely dangerous, why are we closing church buildings whilst keeping universities and schools open during this lockdown?

One of the other commentators in the discussion is a former medic and health service manager, and points out that the criteria here are completely different from what is normally applied in health care:

Presumably you stopped going to your GP long ago…. about 80% of GP interventions comes no where near the level of evidence you set out! Similarly 5 a day or the daily units of alcohol limit are hardly evidenced, yet they are accepted as robust guidance. Most surgical procedures come no where near that level of evidence. Anyhow the following may be interesting to you supporting your thoughts. Incidentally I’m happy to comply with the shut down even though my view is its meeting in church is safer than a lot of other activities.

My point is so much of what we do or don’t do doesn’t meet that level of evidence – especially the evidence for lockdown etc. If your looking for that level of evidence there’s a massive amount of ‘science’ based practice you wouldn’t do. I’m challenged the basis on which you set out your level of evidence…. Public health just isn’t like that. You’re setting the bar way to high—higher than a lot if Medicine practice does.

So the question is, why has ‘safety’ become the absolute measure of what we should and shouldn’t do during this time and in relation to this issue? Why is this not weighed against other, sometimes more serious, considerations?

Jonathan Haidt, in his magnificent The Righteous Mindhighlights how odd this narrow, individualist agenda for ethical and moral decision-making is, being a feature of WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic) culture, when in most of history and in most cultures, other more communitarian values are brought to bear.

And there is a specific issue that raises its head in relation to the pandemic—our inability to have an honest conversation about death. The average age of death with Covid-19 is 83; the normal average life expectancy in the UK is 82, so the pandemic is not, overall, shortening life. Yet our inability to meet physically because of restrictions is making the establishing of relationships with and in the community of faith much harder.

In another, forthcoming, Grove booklet in the Ethics series (following the really excellent first booklet on the ethical issues raised by Covid-19), the authors note:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the virus SARS-CoV-2 is not going away; it is now endemic and will continue to cause deaths especially in the elderly and vulnerable for many months and, depending on treatment options and vaccines, possibly many years. What is absent is an acceptance of this reality. In our time safety has become a prominent, if not the most important, value in society. We assume that life will continue into a long old age. If people consider their own mortality at all, as sadly many do not, they see death as something to be feared and only for the very old…

Seeing this awful disease and its consequences through the lens of God’s mercy, it may be that, through this experience of the dark side of nature, we have the opportunity to reassess our values, so often assumed rather than carefully considered, and thereby gain a new perspective on the issues of life and death.

One such value is the assumption that length of life is all that matters, the longer we live the better, the more medical assistance used to that end an unalloyed good. Many older people have died of COVID-19 and there has been anger that this should be so. Ninety per cent of deaths have been among the over 60s. Ninety per cent of those have had one or more underlying health conditions. Every death is a loss to family and friends who are bereaved. The reality is that death comes to us all and as we grow older, and frailer, life expectancy diminishes. What matters most then? The remaining quantity of life—a few more years, months, weeks? Or the quality—measured in terms of freedom from fear or pain, the ability to take pleasure in our circumstances, being valued and surrounded by the love and support of family and friends?

Without this proper considering of death and mortality, we will not be able to answer the questions of our physical gathering with wisdom and insight.

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40 thoughts on “Should church buildings close during lockdowns?”

  1. A couple of points on the online worship. I am a member of an evangelical church and a Quaker. The evangelical church had very strict rules to improve Covid safety. Only a very restricted number of people were allowed to attend services, with most of the seats closed off. No congregational singing was permitted, though musicians could perform in the front. The church continued to run the local foodbank. You had to book in order to attend service, and priority for booking was given to people who didn’t have internet access. I think this is a very important point missed by people who blithely say “all this can be done online”. Not everyone has the luxury of internet access – so the well-off are privileged and the poor miss out.

    Most of my Quaker meetings now take place on Zoom. But one thing I have noticed, and it’s very obvious if you think about it, is that you cannot do eye contact. In order to look like you’re addressing anyone else, you have to look directly into the webcam, in which case you’re not looking at them. If you look at the image of the person you’re talking to, by definition the image they see of you on the screen will be looking away from them. I would have thought that in a spiritual fellowship, that eye contact is very important.

    • Yes, I agree. Online is an approximation to full personal interaction; it is very far from being equivalent, and I slightly struggle at the argument that it is as good as the real thing. It really isn’t!

  2. I dont know….
    but I do think the Sovereign Lord is at work, turning this for good, helping us re-think what is church , who is the church, how do we be church. The focus on the buildings may have become an idol or a restricting model – even a hindrance as reliance for all our mission and worship. The huge focus on the Sunday shop window – putting on the show, the event? Maybe we needed to radically rethink forms & norms For years we have been hearing about fresh expressions, liquid church, church beyond the walls etc well, now we’ve had to take that seriously

    Sure, we miss the large gatherings, personal connections, community, humanity, I-Thou connection that a screen cannot match, but the Lord has been with us and remarkably at our church we attract online viewers of our youtube service 4x the number who attended a service. We dont know if they are from other churches or former church goers or newcomers – but whatever, it’s working for some.

    I felt our church leaders responded with a draconian knee jerk shutting us down – but now I wonder if the grain of wheat falling into the ground and seeming to die isn’t going to produce great fruit.

  3. Thanks for the post – a nice summary and much appreciated. But I would like to make a technical comment. I am concerned that nobody seems to have discussed church ventilation very much. Good ventilation is known to be important in minimising pathogen spread – see the video of a recent seminar at (a not very subtle way of getting traffic to my web site!). Now for most churches ventilation isn’t a problem (church was draughty today vicar), but there are some circumstances where churches can be quite well sealed, with no air exchange between inside and outside, and thus pathogen build up can take place. Also recirculating air heating systems concern me – are the heaters enough to kill off the virus, or do they just recirculate it?. Not sure what I’m saying really, except there are unknowns here that make me uneasy, particularly coming up to the winter season when church doors are shut and heating turned up to full.

  4. Another factor which none of the above has considered, is people’s fear of Covid. Many elderly people are very frightened of catching Covid, and are still very hesitant about going out at all. Others are shielding, or have shielded, because of other health conditions. If we were to open all our church buildings for carol services with singing in socially distanced congregations on Sunday 20 December, I wonder how many would come.

    Ever since March Government has pinned its hopes on one ‘solution’ or another, all of which have failed. But this virus is proving to be a wily foe, subdividing into variants, as in Denmark, which may threaten the effectiveness of vaccines, if and when they arrive. So, as it has always been , decisions will come down to politics. For how long will the arts and professional sports put up with events without physical spectators? Once that dam is breached, congregational worship will follow as night follows day.

    What a pity our archbishops have not called for a National Day of Prayer when all our buildings could be open for private intercessions, with public prayer led from the front at intervals throughout the day! You never know, God in his mercy might hear and answer, and the virus might depart as suddenly and unexpectedly as it has arrived. Or, more probably, we might begin to learn to live with the virus, taking personal and collective responsibility for our behaviour with reasonable precautions, as we did nine months ago.

    • Yes I would largely agree. But it is also worth asking why there is such fear, when seasonal flu kills many every year but does not inspire such fear. And how have we as a church colluded with fear-mongering?

      • But it is also worth asking why there is such fear

        Another question that bothers me is why — and I admit this is only my experience, so others with a different sample may have seen different effects — in many cases it seems to be the young (ish) who are scared and huddling in their homes, and the elderly — at least, those who were already reasonably active rather than those who already had health conditions that limited their lives — who have over the past few months been most eager to get back to normal, when all the evidence is that it should be the other way around.

        Another, related, observation was that how scared each person seemed to be was pretty much constant, regardless of the actual evidence. So if someone in, say, their thirties or forties was sacred of catching the virus back in March — perfectly reasonably given how little we knew — then they were still just as scared in October, despite every increase in our knowledge showing that really they shouldn’t be. They simply transferred their worry from the concrete threat of the shrinking IRF in their age group to the shadowy bogeyman of ‘long covid’.

        (And the reverse was true of those in their seventies, say, who were not scared in March, but who really should have been as the incredibly steep slope of the age-related IFR became clear).

        It reminded me of a toddler who, once they have started screaming, will — once the immediate reason for their tantrum has been fixed — simply find something else to scream about. It’s like they had decided to be scared, or not to be scared, and then simply sought out information which confirmed that.

        To bring it back to the point, I suppose one thing I muse is: how much influence, really, does the church (or the government, or anyone else) have over ‘fear-mongering’ if for most people — and I am hardly immune, if I reflect on my own experience — their amount of fear is almost entirely due to their own innate sense of fear, and almost unaffected by such external factors as ‘facts’ let alone by the messages given by various groups like churches and governments?

        • Perhaps those who have most years ahead of them have more to lose, whereas those who are nearer the end of life are more determined to grab what they can of whatever may be left and then go out with a bang. Also older people can be much more bolshie than the younger ‘snowflake’ generation! It’s all rather comforting really.

          Regarding the evidence, the government and their ‘advisors’ did an amazing job of scaring people witless. It seems that a lot of those that fell for it have never come out of mental hiding, those that weren’t so easily spooked probably gave up bothering with any evidence long ago – good or bad.

      • It is perhaps worth noting that COVID-19 is significantly more lethal than seasonal ‘flu. One statistic that emerged, following comments denying this is the number of those who died of the ‘flu in the 2019 to 2020 season (ending March 2020) in the USA: about 24,000. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in the USA is approaching 10 times that, and we have not yet reached winter when respiratory infections rise.

        COVID-19 is also significantly more infectious. The famous ‘R factor’ for ‘flu is perhas 1.1-1.3. That for COVID is perhaps 3 in normal social environments. That is actually a huge difference, if one considers the numbers for 10 infection cycles, i.e. one person is infected, to passes it to R others, each of whom pass it to R others, etc. For 1.2 the total number is about 26. For 3 it is 29524.

        There is a significant number of people who have “long COVID”. I know people who were still affected 5 or 6 months after being infected.

        COVID-19 is not going away. We will need to learn to live with it. One factor in this is the emerging evidence that antibodies to the disease decrease over some months. Thus immunity aquired by infection or, presumably, by vaccination will become less effective.

        • It is perhaps worth noting that COVID-19 is significantly more lethal than seasonal ‘flu.

          Though much, much less so than Spanish ‘flu (thank goodness). A good comparison (as it was another pandemic, one for which we did not shut down society) might be with the Asian ‘flu of 1957. That had an estimated IFR of between 0.1% and 0.3%; coronavirus has an overall IFR of 0.7% (though that hides a vast disparity from basically zero in the under-20s to 12% (!!!) in the over-75s).

          So overall it’s a little over twice as bad as Asian ‘flu.

          COVID-19 is also significantly more infectious. The famous ‘R factor’ for ‘flu is perhas 1.1-1.3. That for COVID is perhaps 3 in normal social environments.

          Falling as more people are infected and therefore immune, but yes.

          There is a significant number of people who have “long COVID”. I know people who were still affected 5 or 6 months after being infected.

          There’s very little actual confirmation of these fabled after-effects, though, what they are or how common they are compared to normal viral after-effects, as opposed to anecdote.

          COVID-19 is not going away. We will need to learn to live with it.

          This is true.

          One factor in this is the emerging evidence that antibodies to the disease decrease over some months. Thus immunity aquired by infection or, presumably, by vaccination will become less effective.

          This is not true. There is no ‘thus’ about it; detectable antibodies and immunity are very much not the same thing. The body doesn’t wast energy producing antibodies to diseases it has already overcome; what matters is not whether you happen to have antibodies in your blood, but how fast your body can produce them if it encounters the same pathogen again.

          For other coronaviruses immunity acquired by infection lasts for one or two years, then declines, and then is boosted by re-infection, which tends to produce a mild illness. Nothing that has been learnt about this coronavirus is inconsistent with that, though of course we don’t have any data on people who had it two years ago as it wasn’t around then.

          Immunity produced by vaccines we know nothing about; for influenza, immunity to a given strain produced by infection is life-long (or at least as long as anyone’s bothered to check) but that produced by a vaccine lasts about six months. There has never been a vaccine for a human coronavirus, so vaccine-produced immunity may last longer than infection-produced immunity, the same time, or a shorter time.

        • Yes, in unrestrained environments, the R factor for Covid-19 is high. It is highly infectious, and the worse for being asymptomatic in its first week.

          That is why we do need care—hygiene, avoiding mass spreading events like big sports meetings and concerts, spacial distance.

          But we need to ‘live with it’, which means lockdown, including for church services, is not the answer.

          • But we need to ‘live with it’, which means lockdown, including for church services, is not the answer.

            Evidence is still coming in, but it’s looking like the lockdown in Wales — which involved churches closing — did not change the rate of infection at all, at least on top of the measures already in place.

            Remember thought that the aim must be to get back to normal — including big sporting and cultural events, no social distancing, a return to the wearing of face masks being socially unacceptable — as quickly and as safely as possible. We must not accept a ‘new normal’: all these things are only emergency measures to be maintained only for as long as it is strictly necessary and not a moment longer.

  5. I think much of the fear stem from the fact that CV19 is a new virus and doctors are unfamiliar as to how to treat it. In less than 10% of cases, it is lethal but has the potential to kill more numbers than ordinary flu does – particularly among older people with co-morbidities.

    The MSM carry lots of stories of people who had CV19 badly but few it seems, publish stories of folk that were relatively unaffected by it.

    So I think the fear is based on a mixture of negative perception (which is sometimes unwarranted ) and real-life lethality – its no joke if you get it badly.

  6. Reopening may be an option for those with cavernous Anglican churches to play with. Our little Baptist church could only contain 10 or so persons if properly distanced – on-line is the only really viable way for us at present.

    And one thought that I don’t think was mentioned above. I am sure that the churches themselves can be pretty well Covid-safe. However, will the congregations be disciplined enough not to gather and chat outside after the service? My reluctant conclusion is that the greatest loss through this time is fellowship and coffee, and it would be difficult to stop them.

    • Reopening may be an option for those with cavernous Anglican churches to play with. Our little Baptist church could only contain 10 or so persons if properly distanced – on-line is the only really viable way for us at present.

      And of course not all churches even have their own buildings; some are dependant on the policies of the schools etc that they rent space from on Sundays.

  7. You raise a good point about fears for public health being the determining factor as to whether churches lobby to stay open or accept that they must close. Relatively few of us in the UK see church closures as an unwarranted attack on religious freedoms as some have in the USA.

    Has personal health and security become an idol for us? Tom Wright once said (in another context but it serves to highlight how different assumptions are between the New Testament church and ours); “Wherever Saint Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” What does the world think of a church that is characterized by risk aversion and which deems its worship and gathered prayer to be less essential than visiting a garden centre?

    The safety measures churches have put in place in my church exceed anything I’ve seen in any shop and this pestilence, though serious, is not an outbreak of Ebola or a Novichok attack. I think churches should remain open for those who wish to go – and people should be able to sing in a low voice behind masks as well; forbidding such is over the top when you are stood 2 metres distant from anyone else. If an individual chooses to stay at home that is fine. No one will judge them for it.

    • I have always loved that quote from Tom Wright. Trouble is, it’s also true for me….

      A couple more thoughts. I would hope that our safety measures are better than the average shop’s. I hope that we will love our neighbour, rather than our profit. It’s not just about our health and security – it’s about others as well.

      I have followed this argument on some US websites, and seen the comment that some churches want to open to keep the collection plate moving! I think that is less the case in the UK. And of course, one may need to balance one’s idols. Is it health? Is it meeting in our buildings? Or for a lot of the population, is it shopping?

    • I find that a rather odd quote from Wright. Yes, ‘sometimes’ there was a riot when Paul spoke in a public area, but that was at a time and place where there was a very ‘religious’ society, whether it was the Jews, Greeks or Romans with their many gods. And of course it appears to have been a rather violent society, certainly compared to today in the West. I would also point out that Luke ends his Acts with Paul staying for 2 years, debating with others – I doubt there were many riots during that time. If Wright preached in the open in Pakistan or India, perhaps then he’d get the riot he seems to pine for.

      • I think TW was speaking a bit tongue in cheek and in a self-deprecating way as he reflected on his comfortable life in western academia and living in his bishop’s castle. And, sure, things weren’t rough and rowdy much at the end of Acts but only because Paul was under house arrest. Let him out for half an afternoon and it’d soon be kicking off I have no doubt.

  8. I’m turning this over… and have been since I was 70…on March 23rd!

    A caution about using the word “fear”…

    Some are sheltering their relatives by not joining “on site”. They might be described as “afraid” of passing Covid-19 on. I’ve heard it said thoughtlessly. We need to be careful not to be dismissive of this. It’s actually costly. Unless we learn to live and love each other in a dual economy the church will be diminished.

    Some may not be afraid of being dead but not too keen on the prospect of the dying process with Covid-19. Do we talk too simplistically about Christians being unafraid of death? It’s not a binary switch. I’m not afraid of death… though I’ve not been tested in a real situation.

    Positively… Lockdown has helped /pushed me to think about how i engage with my neighbours about Jesus.

    • Indeed. There is far to much of a dismissive attitude from those who have never suffered respiratory diseases such as asthma, as I did as a child and a little as an adult, when you literally have to fight for every breath. I wouldnt wish it on anyone.

  9. Many do say we need to learn to ‘live with it’.. but do you know anyone who failed in the attempt to ‘live with it’? I have found a correlation between opinions and whether that person knows someone who suffered with Covid. I know two people in their thirties who suffered horribly at home, one healthy man in his mid fifties who died in icu and two christians, age forty and sixtyfive, who had to go to hospital. So I am cautious, I can’t undo what happened but I can try to prevent a transmission chain through my little sphere of influence. Further input for people’s opinions are these three facts: On 7th Nov 1319 people were admitted with Covid19 to NHS england, 10621 were in hospital with Covid19 and 1001 people were on mechanical ventilation with Covid19. These numbers have all gone up and admissions are at the level last seen in late April. This is very very very much worse than flu. Surely it is only if a vaccine fails, that we then ‘learn to live with it’? But instead of demanding our buildings reopen that energy could campaign for effective test, trace, isolate? Then we might be in a position where such restrictions would not be needed!

    • Yes, I know (married to a doctor who looks after a Covid ward) that this is a serious illness, and have repeatedly said so. But it is not *uniquely* serious. So the question is why we are taking unique measures when we did not before.

      Were we lax previously? Or has something else changed?

      • Isn’t part of the background narrative “… Protect the NHS”? So it might be that a sacrifice of personal freedom for the sake of others is a factor? I took the view that staying away from the building might help control the disease spread. Certainly others took a different one and, occasionally, I think, have been cavalier in behaviour.

        Interesting (?) that the several Christian. medics I know have taken polar opposite positions.

        Whether that narrative was right or wrong is another story.

        • I took the view that staying away from the building might help control the disease spread.

          The word ‘might’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. What if it doesn’t? What if opening churches (with reduced capacity) doesn’t actually increase spread?

          That I think is the actual issue. Do we decide these things on the reality of whether they help or not; or do we just do things that look like they might help even if they don’t, so we seem like we’re doing something?

          This whole thing seems to have been run on the basis of ‘something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it’.

  10. I think sadly, we overstate our importance to a nation we have mostly lost through our becoming more concerned with the secular, less concerned with the holy and should quietly get on with this lockdown. We are not important to jobs, the economy and dare I say it, well-being like a garden centre and other outlets and services that have been allowed to carry on as usual. Our churches are not closed. We only have ourselves to blame as we retreat to our parishes and our politically-minded bishops spend more time discussing sexuality and identity politics than the Faith. We need a religious revival if we are ever to bring the people of this country into the utter blessing and privilege of knowing Jesus. So let’s take the lockdown medicine for the next four weeks and ponder on how we have failed.

    • There is plenty of evidence for this. The probability of dying if you catch COVID follows (both for men and for women) the same age dependence as for dying of any other cause. Early in the epidemic there were published figures which showed that, if you caught the virus, the chance of dying was very similar to the usual probability of dying in the next year. So if the probability of catching the virus is the same at all ages (not quite so) the average age of deaths from COVID will be the same as the usual average age at death. See

      CAVEAT: This was several months ago, so before more was learned about treatment methods, but I imagine it’s still broadly the case.

      However, Ian has made a surprising mistake. The risk from COVID is _in addition to_ the risk you take just being alive for a year. A bit of work using published life tables demonstrates that on the average a COVID victim loses about ten years of life. [This is the calculation: Take the whole population and construct a population of COVID victims by sampling with probability proportional to mortality risk; then by using a table of expected residual life at each age it’s straightforward, for a statistician like Ian, to compute the expected residual life for a randomly chosen victim. For the UK population the answer is about 10 years.] And this is on top of what happens to many of those who don’t die…a very long and often incomplete recovery for many victims.

      • PS If that calculation looks too complicated or unlikely, here’s an artificial simplification that might help give a clue. Imagine an illness that killed only people who were exactly 82. On the average, anyone who has survived to the age of 82 can normally expect to live another 8 years or so. So if they were a victim of this illness they would lose 8 years of life. So it is not correct to assert that “The average age of death with Covid-19 is 83; the normal average life expectancy in the UK is 82, so the pandemic is not, overall, shortening life. ” It is.

        • Yes indeed. But you are assuming that Covid is killing *all* those aged 82, regardless. It isn’t; it is mostly killing those with other co-morbidities who as a result do *not* have an 8-year expectation.

          • I repeat my question Ian , can you give me the source for your statement about the average age of death? Very interested in this. Many thanks

          • It was mentioned in one of Ivor Cummings videos; on BBC News they noted in the opening graph last night that 29,000 of the UK deaths so far were in those ‘over 85’.

      • Thanks for picking this up. But I think that your claim that ‘a Covid victim loses about ten years of life’ simply cannot be true. Most are noting that all-source mortality will not look very different this year from any other; the stats on BBC News last night slipped in that of the 50,000 who have died *with* Covid, fully 29,000 were over the age of 85!

        The Covid mortality figures are in fact sweeping up people who are dying of all sorts of things, including seasonal winter flu, because they are often dying *with* Covid so in the stats that is assumed to be the only cause. It isn’t.

        • The average life expectancy for a population is not the same as the life expectancy of an individual. The life expectancy of an 81 year old male is just over 7 years. This is because some people live past the average life expectancy. An 81 year old dying of COVID might have died in the same year or any year up to the maximum possible, but on average they will have lost 7 years of life.
          I may be wrong but if the chances of an event depend on the number of ways in which it can occur, then the arrival of a new ‘way’ must increase its likelihood.

          • ‘They will have on average lost 7 years of life’. That is only if Covid-19 kills all those at 81 in the same way, regardless of their actual health. It doesn’t. Healthy 81-year-olds often recover, as do the healthy at other ages.

          • Thank you Mark; that’s the same thing as I was saying, in different words. Ian makes the point that even among people of a given age, those in poorer health (in other words those who would arguably have fewer years to live anyway) are more likely to succumb if they catch COVID. Is that so? Possibly, but to my knowledge there is no published study which assesses the degree of association between co-morbidity risk and age risk. I had some correspondence with Sir David Spiegelhalter some time ago about this, and his response was “in risk terms, age trumps everything”. That doesn’t mean that having heart disease or cancer or being obese doesn’t give you a higher risk if you catch COVID, but age is the principal contributor to risk. Also bear in mind that the proportion of people living with heart disease or cancer increases in older groups, which makes it difficult to disentangle the effects. Many of those who die with COVID in their 80s would still have had years to live even if they had other conditions. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that Ian’s point might reduce the “average years lost” a bit—maybe from 10 to 8, say—but it remains simply incorrect, and if I may say misleading, to infer from the average age of victims that “the pandemic is not, overall, shortening life”.

  11. Interesting. Here in Edmonton, Alberta, we shut down on site services mid-March and moved everything online. Online services have been well supported by people of all ages. A tiny minority of the congregation don’t have Internet, but the vast majority do. For those who like Facebook, we do Facebook live. For those who don’t, we put written prayer materials up on the church website with videos of the sermon and some hymns. The two are about equally popular (average of about 40 per week using each platform). FWIW, our ASA before the shutdown was about 75.

    As far as excluding people goes, it works both ways. Yes, as I said, a tiny minority have no Internet. But those who are less mobile, or didn’t want to drive to Bible studies at night, have been much more regular in their attendance at the online stuff.

    Since early August we’ve had on site services again, with masks, no singing, no physical contact, no coffee hour, social distancing, and communion in one kind only. Our church can seat 149, but with 2 metre distancing, only between 20 and 30, depending on the size of the groups they come in. Interestingly, we’ve never had more than 12. The vast majority of our people prefer to stay home and stay safe. I’ve heard other church leaders talk about how the people couldn’t wait to get back together again. That’s definitely not the case with our people.

    • “I’ve heard other church leaders talk about how the people couldn’t wait to get back together again. That’s definitely not the case with our people.”

      – indeed. Your first sentence reflects the false perception of those in church leadership who would find it odd that people are not in fact that interested in ‘church’ and feel attendance is more a duty than anything else, but it is in the interest of church leaders that as many people as possible attend. Your second sentence reflects reality.

  12. Ian, I expect every one has lost interest in this now…..but I am seriously concerned about the misuse of information by some of your sources. I can see the Sun and the Times quoting the average age of death with Covid as 83. Their source is a recent updated report from the CEBM, which is not about the average age of death but is trying to calculate the world wide mortality rate from Covid. Reading the report to the end they do quote from a small study from Italy of 355 cases finding that the average age of death in the sample was 79.9, median 81. The journalist had either not read the CEBM article or simply lifted one piece out of context. According to ICL Dr Lucy O’Kell ‘although the elderly are by far the highest risk of dying….The risk in middle age is still high……about 1:260 infected 50-55 year olds. What you have said could easily be misunderstood to imply that only the terminal ill are dying from Covid. Knowledge of this illness is growing and changing all the time, confidently quoting journalists, some of whom use mean and median interchangeably does not help bring light to this fractured conversation.


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