Should Churches Be the First to Reopen?

13 May 2020

5.3 MINS

Recently the headlines in The Australian, ‘Catholic bishops push Premier to open NSW churches’ (3 May), raised my eyebrows in joy. The proposal to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was signed by Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher and 17 others, including Archbishop of Canberra Christopher Prowse and the bishops of regional NSW. The Catholic bishops have proposed a four-stage reopening of NSW Catholic churches as cases of COVID-19 abate.

Last week the Prime Minister launched his Three-Step plan to ease COVID restrictions, with Stage 1 allowing up to 30 people to attend funerals outdoors and up to 10 people to attend weddings outdoors, moving to Step 3 which would allow gatherings of up to 100 people with retail, pubs, clubs, sporting events, and restaurants all getting a mention. But what about the Churches?

There is no denying that the demographics of many congregations make sanctuaries a risky place for gatherings to resume. Under the ‘Three-Steps’ approach, churches presumably will have the option to return to in-person worship. The new initiative by the US Liberty Counsel — a Christian legal team that has defended congregations who gathered in violation of government orders — encouraged churches nationwide to resume services on May 3.

So, should churches be one of the first mass gatherings to reopen? If yes, then religious demography indicates that, for the sake of the safety of aging congregations, pastors should be cautious. Their sanctuaries are ideal places for the coronavirus to spread, and the results could be catastrophic. Along with an ageing national population, the Sydney-based National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data shows the church-going population is also ageing, with an average age of adult church attenders being 53. While the 70-plus age group are strongly represented in church (comprising 12% of the population but 25% of all church attendees), the age groups under 50 are underrepresented.

Observation and experience have shown that older churchgoers are more likely to be the most eager to return to church services. FamilyVoice research has shown that the elderly were particularly prone to social isolation and loneliness before the pandemic, and during the intervening weeks of social distancing, they were less likely to have participated in the digital options offered as an alternative to in-person fellowship.

According to Australian Department of Health statistics, over 90% of deaths by age group were over 60 years of age, and further, most deaths reported have been in males 70 and 89 years.

If the elder saints who faithfully fill our pews also fall in the demographic shown to be at the greatest risk right now, why are we rushing to open churches, given that one of the most consistent findings is that the COVID-19 disease carries a much higher fatality rate among older adults? Whilst most Christians take the approach of ‘Faith over Fear’, churches need to be mindful of Benjamin Franklin’s oft quoted phrase:

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Most would agree that Baby Boomers and members of older generations make up around half or more of every major Christian tradition in the country. Among a wide variety of denominations, close to half of members are 55 and over. According to NCLS data, the Anglican and Uniting Churches were the denominations with the oldest profile, with an average age of 55 and 61, respectively. In contrast, the mean age of Baptists was 47 and of Pentecostals was 39. Overall, there has been an ageing trend across the churches. From 1996 to 2006, the proportion of people in churches aged under 40 had decreased from 29% to 25%, and the proportion of people aged 60 and over increased from 34% to 42%.

Many churches that opt to return to worship in their sanctuary will not rush back to the norm; there will be extra efforts to sanitise, promote handwashing, and encourage the 1.5m social distance between attendees. But even with these precautions in place, returning to the shared space of worship—of singing, sitting, kneeling, communion, and greeting—brings the possibility of unknowingly spreading the virus among a population that is older and particularly vulnerable.

News reports highlighted that in the USA, churches became hot spots for the initial outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus. If things go belly-up, they could be responsible for the dreaded “second wave” of infections. Global health opinion suggests a phased plan for congregations gathering amid this pandemic.

So, when not if, churches reopen, how should they meet safely is the question that needs to be at the top of the Order of Service.

Over the past three to four months, the spread of the coronavirus has exploded across the globe, leaving patients on ventilators, and families grieving over the loss of their loved ones. To limit the spread of this virus, most governments implemented strict stay-at-home orders. This very blunt instrument was necessary because many countries were simply unprepared for the rapid spread of this virus. If nothing were done, the rising number of infections would have overwhelmed our healthcare system, and deaths would have quickly escalated passed the current 93 (as of 9 May).

During this period, churches across Australia, and indeed around the world, have closed their doors to in-person worship and ministries. As with many preventive actions, we may never know how this has limited the spread of COVID-19, but as global health professionals tell us, this has prevented many infections and deaths that would have occurred among congregants and their families and friends had lockdowns not been implemented.

Our churches are now facing a set of difficult decisions: when to resume in-person ministries and how to carry out these ministries safely.

One way forward is to take a step-by-step approach that helps the national church live out its missional calling, meet the needs of its congregants, and protect the health of those in the church and in the community.

This all sounds good, but it is well worth noting that churches in Australia are in uncharted territory regarding how to respond to the current epidemic. Churches will all continue to learn as this epidemic evolves, hibernates, and/or resurfaces again. Based on recent experience, here are two simple approaches churches could make in real time: (1) assess what kind of actions a church should take based on the risk of transmission, and (2) implement a framework that can help churches develop a specific plan to prevent infection and increase social distancing as and when necessary.

To discern God’s call for the churches to reopen, two factors need to be relied upon: biblical truths and scientific knowledge, both of which have been given, Christians would argue, by divine right. Even as clergy focus on preventing COVID-19 infections, churches should not neglect the spiritual, emotional, and social needs of its congregants. During this period of social distancing and ‘On-Line’ sermons, it is perhaps even more important that churches meet these needs as best they can through worship, prayer, encouragement, witnessing, discipleship, and serving in a way that minimises the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Catholic bishops’ proposal is sound and viable. According to the proposal, re-opening churches, at first only for private prayer and confessions and with strict protocols in place, would be a significant benefit to many in the community, offering solace to the faithful and hope to the anxious.

The first of the four stages would exclude Masses and services and be limited to private prayer and confessions, with physical distancing and the use of hand sanitiser overseen by monitors. The second stage envisages Masses and services to be held in outdoor spaces such as car parks, with the number of attendees limited. The bishops suggest “no collection plates or hymn books to be passed around; no shaking of hands or holding hands … and Holy Communion to be given and received safely’’. Stage three, with similar provisos, would see Masses and services moved indoors, with stage four a “return to the (new) normal with lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Whilst not a prophecy, Christians are prayerful that the COVID-19 pandemic in its present form will pass. One day Australian churches will look back on this time and see clearly that God was with the churches and was working in their midst for good. One fact is for certain is that when people return to gather for worship, fellowship and study, it will not be the same church before the coronavirus pandemic. The world will never be the same. And neither will the church. Alea Iacta Est.

[Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash]

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