According to the headlines, some churches in Scotland are deeply concerned that the Scottish Government has overreached by insisting that churches cannot currently gather for worship. Today there is a suggestion of legal action from the churches.
It would be naive to assume that decisions made during the Covid crisis could never have unintended repercussions in the future. It is also possible that laws made now to restrict public gathering could be used in a malicious way later. And it is entirely possible that, where laws exist to protect religious expression and gathering, there may be a legal clash with hastily introduced Covid laws. But does our current situation constitute the religious persecution or oppression that warrants civil disobedience or a legal backlash?
Living under Covid-19 restrictions is relatively miserable; although far better than dying from Coronavirus. We dearly miss our extended families, friends and community. We miss the wider Christian community gathering weekly for learning, communal worship and encouragement.
And there are genuine concerns from a faith perspective about not being able to meet. The New Testament expects a physical gathering of Jesus’ followers and warns against individuals removing themselves from the group. From a more theological perspective, humans are both spirit and body; there is something significant about not being able to stand next to each other, hug, hi-five or shake hands. There is no doubt that the current restriction on gathering is not simply miserable but psychologically damaging.
So why put up with not being allowed to gather?
Here are a few thoughts.
- Recognising that the Government are not singling out religious groups but asking a huge variety of people, businesses and organisations not to meet, we choose to obey the civil authority and give them the due respect
- Regardless of the legal situation, we voluntarily sacrifice our desire to meet for the good of the wider community and to aid the national response to a deadly pandemic.
- Noting that under the present lockdown, many of our fellow Christians would not be able to attend due to health, travel problems or general infirmity, we choose not to make church gathering a matter of division.
- We consider our witness to the nation. At a time when everyone is struggling, if the church appears to be primarily concerned with its own benefit and situation, what does that say to the rest of society? It may say that we take our faith seriously, but I suspect it says more strongly that we are only concerned with ourselves.
- With the technology at our fingers, we have an unprecedented opportunity to maintain activities online. Yes, often these are poorer or lesser than the experience of being physically together. But they are better than nothing. And let’s be very clear, we have not been banned from sharing the Gospel or meeting online. Although, to be fair, we are beholden to online platforms that can restrict freedom of religious expression.
- For many churches technology allows a far wider reach than pre-covid days. Lots of churches have found that new people are engaging who didn’t previously attend physical gatherings. Arguably we have better missional opportunities than before.
- Prayer and pastoral care can still happen even if it’s simply over the phone or during a daily walk. Again this is not ideal but it is no less powerful or effective. The Apostle Paul conducted teaching and pastoral care in writing as evidenced by his New Testament letters.
- The Sunday gathering is an important part of the Christian life but it is far from the whole of Christian discipleship. The New Testament puts greater emphasis on the Christian community daily sharing the Gospel message and living out Kingdom ethics. Even in lockdown we can happily fulfil these central activities.
It is far from ideal to take the church entirely online instead of physically meeting together. But where we have the means to continue church life virtually is this not a worthy sacrifice to protect the vulnerable and bless wider society? A huge part of being a Christian is living in more than one realm of existence; we pray, we join with the heavenly host, through the Holy Spirit we link with Christians across the entire globe and beyond. Surely virtual gathering is not too much of a stretch?
Time will tell if there is a legal case against the lockdown of Churches. But if there is, what about those made redundant, theatres, cinemas, small business owners, pubs and self employed etc., should Christians focus on our right to gather or instead campaign for justice for the rest of society, some of whom cannot feed themselves?
For me, this is the crux of the matter. Who are we trying to benefit if we push the Government to reopen churches? Perhaps there are many different motivations, but to wider society, I fear it may appear a very self-centred approach. Should the Christian community not be willing to accept discomfort if that sacrifice commended Jesus and his followers in the midst of the pandemic? There are so many other things we could be doing, right now, to witness to his love and grace to a suffering world.