Thursday, April 16, 2020

Can church and corona coexist?

There are those who would immediately label the parameters of the argument within the tension between church and state.  If the state says you can't, the instinct is for the church to say you can.  And this would work if the restrictions were being applied solely to religious gatherings.  I am not sure that this is what is happening.  To be sure, there are those who have singled out church in illegal ways.  Gov. Holcomb of Indiana has presumed to tell churches how to have the Eucharist and distribute the Sacrament.  His is not simply an overreach but a foolish and arrogant one at that.  He presumes to know what faithful practice is for every faith.  But that is an easy one.  Gov. Beshear of Kentucky is asking law enforcement to record license plate numbers of those who might attend church services and then require the offenders to be quarantined for two weeks.  Could his animosity and illegal discrimination be more clear and obvious?  Again, his is worse than being extra careful and he is targeting people whose religious practice is protected by the Bill of Rights.  No, the more difficult question is whether or not it is possible for the church to live within some parameters and restrictions or not.

I believe it is possible.  It is difficult and taxing upon the resources of the church and her ministers but I believe it is possible to find ways to be faithful and prudent in time of epidemic and pandemic.  The choice is not simply to shutter the doors or do what the church has always done.  There are options.  After all, in most churches across America the faithful are not an assembly of strangers but a gathering of people who do know each other with pastors who know their people well.  Yes, of course, if yours is a congregation of thousands the reality is that the pastors do not know their people well.  For congregations of this size, the people in the pews in good times and in bad are mostly strangers to them.  But the vast majority of congregations are not like this. 

In my own parish of 300 or so per week, I can call 98% of them by name on Sunday morning and the rest of them I know who they are even though their first names have not clicked yet in my memory.  I know who they are, where they live, where they work, and what kind of people and families they are.  So do their brothers and sisters in the pews.  For us to gather in many very small groups is not as risky as me heading for an urgent part at Lowe's or a needed grocery item at Kroger's.  When I go to these essential business places, I will generally not see someone I know by name.  The folks there are strangers.  We may be walking down the narrow aisles in uncomfortably close quarters but we may never see each other again.  Yet, for some reason, the familiar yet small gatherings of my parish are seen by most as more risky than a visit to the home center or supermarket.  Why is this?

The congregation I serve has a building complex of some 40,000 square feet -- 20 times the size of a decent sized house.  We have a chapel at one end and a large nave half a building away.  The chapel seats 80 and the nave 375.  It is not credible to suggest that we are putting our people at risk by having services of 10 simultaneously, separated by a several hundred feet in spaces where it is easy to maintain appropriate distance.  We have plenty of hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial soap, and follow the CDC guidelines.  So we have 12 or 14 services in one day.  I will admit that it is physically exhausting but it I believe it is faithful.  The doctors, nurses, PAs, and other medical professionals who attend must believe the same thing or they would not be there.

You do not need to do what we are doing.  But I plead for you to figure out a way to be faithful to your people without locking the doors and turning people to video formats.  If this were merely a matter of weeks or a month, I would not urge this so strongly but we all know it has already been a month and it will be a month more and in most places it will be another month after that -- at best!!!  So we are struggling to provide something that works not for a short-time but for as much as three months.  Even then, we realize that a grand announcement from the White House will not immediately mean everyone will return to their old ways.  Fear takes prisoners.  We will begin to venture out but it will be slow -- going first where we must, as to work, and then picking up other places as our confidence grows.  And if any media tells us that the virus is rebounding, we will all run as fast as we can back to our homes to shelter in place again.

So, how long can Christians in a community go without church?  And how long can the church go without people gathering?  I fear we will soon be figuring out answers to these questions.  Some suggest that there will be a surge of people returning as soon as the all clear sounds.  Maybe.  I suspect that the post-corona church will not look like it did before.  I fear that the numbers will be smaller than before.  I worry that the congregations will be weaker -- spiritually as well as financially.  I am concerned about the effect of people who have gotten out of the good habit of worship, children who have forgotten what it means to go to Sunday school or attend catechism class, choirs who have not thought about music in a time of year all about music, Bible study times that have been filled with other activities, VBS programs that did not meet, and programs of good works in the community that have been put on hold long enough to be easily overlooked as summer begins. I hope I am needlessly worried but times have shown that these are serious concerns.

Every pastor ought to be thinking about this and every parishioner should be thinking about this.  We will not save ourselves but we can certainly make it harder for God to restore what has been lost.  At least this should be on our hearts and minds and in our prayers.


Carl Vehse said...

This Libnutz cartoon raises a key point regarding the continuing behavior by state and local kakistocrats, especially in their unlegislated assassination of the First Amendment.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Indeed, there is much anxiety and worry in our communities. The uncertainty of when and how we return to normalcy remains a challenging task. As you said, people are fearful of the future, and this pandemic has turned lives upside down. Some people are dealing with the unexpected loss of loved ones, friends, relatives, or colleagues, Everyone has a reason to be worried about finances and the economy. I think even the faith of some has been shattered. Yet, it is at these times our faith will sustain us. We realize how little control we actually have over life. Jesus warned us about living for worldly pleasure alone, We can be grateful for earthly blessings, but we must remember that we are still pilgrims and strangers walking toward another kingdom. It will take time for our country to return to normalcy, and fir our churches to be filled once again, but we must go fiorward by the grace of God, one step at a time,

Archimandrite Gregory said...

I see a number of politicians setting themselves up for big lawsuits down the road. I hope it happens so that they see that we still live in a republic.

Anonymous said...

Do you really believe that the courts in blue states (and in purple states and in many red states) will decide for the rights of churches and against the power of the state?

The reason that church groups haven't filed lawsuits is because they know they will probably loose, and in doing so, set precedents for future abuse of power by the state.