Churches and Covid

18 months ago, as New Zealand went into its first Covid “lockdown”, I wrote a post here about the values implicit (sometimes explicit) in the choices the government made about who or what would be “locked down”, and who would not. The New Zealand “lockdown” was the most stringent adopted by a government in any hitherto-free society but even it involved choices that revealed the values of the political decisionmakers. Broadly speaking the values seemed to be:

  • materialism, and practical atheism,
  • statism,
  • prioritising the convenience of officials rather than the freedoms of the citizenry, and
  • prioritising economic activity over anything but the virus.

Most of that earlier post still seems valid now and nothing of substance has changed in the New Zealand government’s approach since (if anything their maximal regime has become even more draconian).

But what bothers me this far into the Covid-era isn’t so much the government itself: atheistic governments will do what they will do (and in fairness some less-evidently atheistic ones in other places have often adopted somewhat similar restrictions, if usually less severe) but the utter passivity of the churches and church leaders, who seem quite content to accommodates the values choices of our government.

In last year’s lockdown the celebration of Easter – the greatest feast in the Christian year – was prohibited. No ifs, buts, or maybes. Any gathering for worship and celebration was simply prohibited by a state that no doubt saw no irony prohibiting the celebration of the triumph over death accomplished in Jesus. It wasn’t even as if they granted even modest (realistic) accommodations: small groups, physically spaced, outdoors even. They simply banned Christian worship, in a way (I’m pretty sure) never previously done in New Zealand history. And this was whether or not the congregation in question was in an area with recorded Covid cases. During the election campaign both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were at pains to agree that they’d have no hesitation in cancelling Christmas either, if the Covid imperative seemed to them to demand it. To them, neither of these festivals seemed to have any more significance than, say, the monthly meeting of the local knitting circle or the school fair. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, so far gone is our society. What should be more surprising is that churches and church leaders meekly went along. Officials and ministers fend off any concerns suggesting that people can “meet online”, but whatever such “meetings” might be (and some seem to have found some value in them) they are no substitute for gathered, incarnational, Christian worship.

One of the most egregious aspects of the entire New Zealand “lockdown” framework was, and is, the absolute prohibition on funerals. Few, if any, other hitherto free countries went that far. This isn’t a distinctively Christian concern, it is a wider matter of common humanity, as if the deepest rituals of our societies and families mean nothing to officials and politicians except as a little discretionary colour, dispensable at will, at the whim of some politicians. When there were choices, the steel mill and aluminium smelter were left producing, luxury food producers kept producing and distributing, but people could not gather to grieve – not even a spouse of decades could be at a service or a graveside. The callous inhumanity – perhaps worse for being repeated this year – almost defies belief. But scarcely a word is heard from our church leaders.

If the prohibition on funeral services was bad, arguably worse were some of the less visible restrictions. Often people were left to die alone, without the touch and comfort of family, friend, or priest. The bereaved are left to grieve alone (other than someone who happens to be in government-deemed “bubble”) as – for example – priests and pastors (like family and friends) are unable to visit, to sit with, to cook for those who are suffering. It defies common humanity, but no doubt it is clean and easy to enforce for officials (the same absurd ministers and officials who banned swimming in the sea, or parents giving driving lessons to their children, where there was no public health official at all, but….convenience). All support must flow only through government-mandated agencies, as if the government is prior to and over the bedrock aspects of faith, family, and community on which our societies are built.

Of course, we all know the rationale, but that doesn’t justify the quiescence of the churches in the face of these restrictions. Infectious disease isn’t a good thing, and Covid can kill. Restricting the spread of the virus is probably a good thing in and of itself, but it isn’t the only thing. and it isn’t even the most important thing, at least for the Christian. The mindset that has driven government policy seems – perhaps not surprisingly to be – “we can think of nothing worse than death, and never mind any one who disagrees”. Never mind a priority on worship, on gathering, on relationships that go beyond those of the household in which one happens to dwell.

It has all come into sharper relief 18 months on. If the New Zealand government was slow to act last March, it was at least in company. What is striking is the cavalier way they have continued to expose the citizenry to their draconian lockdowns, in failing to adequately police the international borders, the priority put on entry to New Zealand of those one whom the government’s favour rests, the failure to adequately manage the managed isolation and quarantine arrangements (where New Zealand has twice the rate of breaches as Australia) and the failure to put in place vaccination programmes earlier. And so we’ve been flung into extreme lockdowns again, again with barely a word from church leaders.

The situation has become more egregious recently since in all but Auckland there is no (community) Covid. In most of the area outside Auckland, there has been no community Covid for more than a year. And yet gatherings for worship – and funerals – are still severely restricted, for the convenience of the government.

But all the government seems to meet from the churches is acquiescence, or worse. There is no sign, for example, of civil disobedience, despite weeks and weeks of restrictions. It is as if some churches and pastors no longer believe in the potency and priority of worship, as anything more than a gathering for a chat and a cup of tea.

I encountered a sad example myself. A local church, fallen on hard times recently, has a typical congregation of 25-35 people. The current restrictions outside Auckland prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, but that clearly was not going to be a problem for this congregation. But instead of resuming gathered worship last Sunday, as soon as the law permitted it, the pastor indicated that as people were a bit tired and stressed (apparently) there would be no such gathering last Sunday. In the same newsletter, the pastor was keen to highlight how the church building was being used by local doctors as a vaccination centre – a worthy use no doubt, but quite a contrast to the absence of gathered worship. It was almost a caricature of social-gospel Christianity – never mind worship, but the buildings are being used for other good things (not, of course, as if they were in conflict).

This week it seems the church in question is going to gather for worship. There is no Covid in Wellington, and the congregation (at maximum) takes up a fairly small proportion of the space in the building. There are no government mask requirements in churches, but the church is going to impose one anyway. In a city with no Covid, no one will be able to worship if they will not wear a mask. Apparently they are so restrictive they are also scrapping Communion for the time being.

Now you might have wondered if this was a church that was typically rule-bound and scrupulous, ready to exclude for the slighest offence. But no. Not that long ago, when a (now former) pastor walked out on his marriage the elders were content to let him continue preaching. The current pastor seems reluctant to enunciate any firm truth or behavioural standards, and certainly takes no stand in defence of orthodox church teaching on sexuality (or any other matters). All his message is on embracing difference, rarely if ever on defining (and forming people in) truth. It is procedural liberalism for a dying church. But masks…….in a city with no Covid – is the one stand he will make. It really is as if they see the church as some branch of the public health bureaucracy, some social do-gooding agency, and not the gathered people of the living God, willing to risk life, name, and property for the King, who offered his Son for us, before whom we will one day stand in judgement.

Why might we expect anything different from atheistic government leaders when the church is so feeble about living what it (supposedly) teaches?

Are there prudent limits? No doubt. Does anyone want to infect another person? Of course not. But throughout the last 18 months churches (in New Zealand, but as far as I can see, often abroad too) have told governments that gathered worship isn’t very important, that the support people in the community (the church) provide for one another isn’t very important, and that deference to the state is the first priority. We aren’t generally charged to pursue reckless courses, but we are challenged to fear much less what would destroy the body than what would distract us from the true worship of the living God, on whom our eternal hope rests.

Would there be pushback if church leaders took a stand? Of course, and we’d be told that church is no different to the tiddlywinks club etc – perhaps worse, since we insist (with the church through the ages) on singing. If we believe that, or let that view go unchallenged, we have become like salt that has lost its savour.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Churches and Covid

  1. RML

    This has really bothered me too. At the first lockdown, I recall one dedicated young RC priest in Te Atatu trying to come up with compromises such as families driving to the church, tuning in on their phones, and then the priest going car-to-car to distribute Communion to the faithful. If I recall correctly, that suggestion (and others) was quashed and even he had to accept the directive that we’d all just sit at home and ignore the sacramental reality of our faith. I wish our Christian leaders had made a real stand on this point: that we are ultimately obedient to God first. Creative solutions and dispensations, yes. Abandonment of the flock just when the flock needs it the most, no.

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  2. James Russell

    Yes, I too am bothered by the lack of pushback by church leaders against vastly over-the-top restrictions, especially outside Auckland. Typical of our atheistic ruling class (politicians and bureaucrats) that church and fellowship and worship is seen as a nice to have that can be suspended for months at a time.

    I’ve done a quick perusal of Papers Past to see if similar things happened in that vastly more deadly Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Turns out yes, churches were closed, it seems that each District Health Officer had the power under the Health Act 1908 (Section 18) to institute a similar lockdown to what we see today. See this example from the ODT on 16 November 1918 for an example (scroll down to see Mr Faris’ Notice): https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ODT19181116.2.63.1

    But the prohibition on church services does not seem to have lasted long. By 6 December (so a forced closure of 3 weeks), Mr Faris removed this prohibition on churches (though kept some other restrictions) in Otago: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/MIC19181206.2.13.4

    It also seems that each district took different precautions. Notably Otago closed churches for about three weeks in November 1918, but I can’t see much for other District Health Officers around the country. Some churches closed voluntarily (such as if minister was sick with the flu), but other than bans on the sale of alcohol which seem to be fairly widespread around the country, it looks like church closures outside of Otago were limited to only one or two weeks, if any (see this example from Horowhenua: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HC19181121.2.16.2)

    Open air services were clearly permitted, as seen here in Ellesmere in late November 1918: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EG19181123.2.10.3

    Australians removed all restrictions by February 1919, even though authorities knew “that the influenza epidemic is likely to smoulder for months”, and permitted church services there from March 1919 (well and truly in time for Easter). https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19190301.2.65

    Even by April 1919, it seems even fresh outbreaks in Sydney weren’t enough to close church services (though all other indoor meetings were banned): https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/WT19190404.2.34

    So a much more deadly pandemic over a hundred years ago was treated with less tyranny restricting Christians’ right to gather and worship. I wish more Christian leaders would take a stand, as it is I only hear from those who seem to take pride in being outspoken (eg Tamaki), and sadly he does not speak for me.

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