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:
Daily rate from Zoe CSS app estimated for U.K. down again today at 37,000 and clearer about when new cases peaked at the end of October. R below 1 in Scotland and NW and hopefully other regions next week . Keep logging and sharing ! pic.twitter.com/tmw1EdZ2fW
— Tim Spector (@timspector) November 8, 2020
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 Mind, highlights 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.