Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Following on from last week’s letterabout missing communion – I would like to share with you some thoughts about how the church is coping with the Covid 19 crisis. I realise it is dangerous to do so – because we live in a world of extremes -, especially on social media. Someone states position A. Someone else states the opposite position – Z – and there is never anything in between. It’s the same with the Covid 19 crisis and churches. Position A – The Church must do everything (and more) that the State demands/suggests or we are guilty of killing people. Position Z – The Church must defy the State and continue to meet as normal, or we are guilty of bowing the knee to Caesar. These opinions are stated strongly and battle lines are drawn up – so that it is difficult to have a more nuanced discussion – there are no positions B to Y. So at the risk of incurring the wrath of the A’s and Z’s let me offer a little personal reflection on how the church has responded – and introduce a letter from Willie Philip, minister of the Tron Church in Glasgow.
I find myself increasingly concerned by the way that the church at large (in the UK and to a lesser extent in Australia – I don’t know enough about the US and we usually only get the extremes reported) is handling this crisis. There is something nagging away in me. I could be wrong but these are a few thoughts. In some ways it has been a commendable reaction, but there are some concerns I have – not least the apparent unwillingness to call both church and nation to repentance and the reinforcement of the view that we can fix this. We are not broken people. We seem reluctant to believe that God is saying anything through this – and we seem more concerned for the opinions and laws of men, than the Word of God. I’m not talking here about the ‘liberal/progressives’ – why would I expect any different from them? – but rather the evangelical church leadership.
I am concerned about the way that the State has taken so much power over personal, social and religious life. For example the Scottish government posted a video stating how good it was that we were now allowed to hug our grandchildren. I found it somewhat creepy (but when I suggested that on Twitter, I received a storm of abuse for daring to even think that!). It was with a touch of amusement that I read that the UK government for example will now allow baptism by sprinkling, but not by immersion! When did the State get to make laws about religion in this way? And why have we acquiesced in it? It seems to me that the State says ‘jump’ and the Church says ‘how high?”! Of course we are all concerned to prevent the spread of Covid, but I wonder at what cost – economically, socially, mentally and spiritually? What price is too high?
One fear I have (and I hope it is a misguided one) is that we have inadvertently given the message to those both within and outwith the church, that meeting together, the sacraments, pastoral visitation etc are not ‘essential’ and we can do without them if we are asked to. I also fear that what has happened with many companies and educational establishments will happen with the church – their workers have got used to staying at home (particularly those who have comfortable nice homes with gardens) and are reluctant to come back into work. For some it is fear, for others lethargy and for others, it is just the formation of a new habit that will be hard to break. I wonder how much the church will take a hit in this respect – especially if we can’t sing, have Sunday school, or sit together? At the beginning, churches were boasting about how much their ‘attendances’ had gone up as they moved online. In recent weeks more have been reporting significant drops – with one survey estimating that 40% of regular churchgoers have not been going online for the past month. I suspect this drop will to some extent be carried over to when we meet again.
I think we should have closed down our services…but under protest and with a caveat that we wanted to return as soon as possible. I suspect that far too many churches have got almost comfortable with the situation – as often happens when people for good and necessary reasons (illness, family, work) stop going to church for a while and then get comfortable in their new habit. We can’t be bothered with the hassle and effort of starting up again! Doubtless, different people will have different experiences but it is a danger we should be aware of.
How many of us have been spiritually renewed as we have been driven from our idols and compelled to seek the mercy of the Lord as we fall on our knees? Some have. Some unbelievers have become Christians as well. I know one man whose confinement at home has caused him to rethink his life and turn to Christ.. But I also know of the opposite happening. I think of the pastor who has fallen into a spiritual lethargy – he likes the fact that he can do his work by talking to a camera and doesn’t have to move out of his study to meet people! Needless to say his church will not be gathering until it is ‘safe’.
I fear that this pandemic has been teaching us to be afraid of our fellow human beings, rather than the fear of God. The Pandemic of Fear – ENIt has taught some of us to trust the State rather than trust God. I think we should have closed down our services…but under protest and with a caveat that we wanted to return as soon as possible. I suspect that far too many churches have got almost comfortable with the situation – as often happens when people for good and necessary reasons (illness, family, work) stop going to church for a while and then get comfortable in their new habit. We can’t be bothered with the hassle and effort of starting up again! And we have not calculated the damage that has been, and will be done in so many ways by this lockdown.
We have boasted in our own ability to cope, rather than humbly accepting how weak and frail we and our systems are. We have accepted the mantra that whilst food and physical health are vital – spiritual is optional. Of course that is not true in all circumstances and there are numerous caveats that have to be added to that. Not least that this is a hunch/feeling that I have, based on limited observation. I hope it is wrong.
Here is the article I wrote along similar lines for EN.
But meanwhile I post, with permission, an article in this month’s Evangelical Times, by Willie Philip. I think it is spot on. (I have included the footnotes as well at the bottom). Be interested to know what you think…
Health and Safety or Hope and Salvation?
– the church’s message during a pandemic
“Why do our church leaders worship at the altar of health and safety?” ran the title of a recent article by a Sunday Times columnist, above a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury at a homemade altar in his kitchen.
That image seems to epitomise the response of church leaders in Britain to the COVID19 pandemic. In contrast to other countries – in Italy more priests than doctors have died, through resolutely visiting the sick in hospital – here, senior churchmen have so effectively led the flight to safety they have disappeared almost entirely from public view, leaving commentators in the national press asking ‘Where is spiritual leadership at a time of crisis?’ 1 The reluctance of denominational leaders to press for churches to reopen as a priority gives the message loud and clear: ‘almost anything, even getting a haircut, is more important than public worship… ‘It’s not worth the risk’. 2
So, at the very time when so many have been forced to confront the frailty of mortal life, the message of the eternal – hope and salvation – has been entirely eclipsed by that of the ephemeral – health and safety.
To the claim that these are ‘unprecedented’ times, CS Lewis’ 1948 essay ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ gives some perspective: ‘do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation’. In answer to the question of how we are to live with a grave new threat – the atomic bomb, but equally a pandemic – he answers,
as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer… of railway accidents… of motor accidents…It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.3
We need to ‘pull ourselves together’, he says. If such calamity comes let it find us ‘doing sensible and human things…not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs’ – or viruses.
Fear grips us when our horizons drift from the eternal to the merely ephemeral, a perennial danger for the church, and an acute one today when leaders may be tempted to court the praise of mainstream and social media through conforming to the prevailing ‘public mood’.
But ours is the gospel of eternal hope: ‘For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ (2 Cor 4:18). Hebrews 11 demonstrates graphically the way of real Christian faith, in lives rooted in solid hope: seeing the invisible, and living for the eternal. The calling of the church – especially in dark and difficult days – is above all to ‘hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering’ (Heb 10:23). This is the message our society needs to witness, adorned in the church, and heard from its leaders.
Essential eternal perspective
That is not to say that Christians should not care about present physical threats. Indeed, it is this eternal perspective that liberates the church to love truly, and fearlessly. As CS Lewis points out ‘those who want heaven most have served earth best’.4 Thus the command to love neighbours has always been understood by Christians in time of plague to mean that their own wellbeing be sacrificed for others; “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
In the 2nd and 3rd Centuries Christianity spread rapidly though the Empire because times of plague showed the world such Christian love and care the Church was noticed and heeded. In the 4th C the emperor Julian talked of the ‘Galileans’ who, heedless of danger, showed such care for all (not just their own) that death rates in cities with Christian communities were far lower than elsewhere.
In the 16th Century, Martin Luther famously refused to leave Wittenberg as ordered when it was hit by bubonic plague. Despite a fatality rate sometimes as high as 90% (COVID, by contrast, kills under 1%, perhaps as low as 0.01% of all infected) 5 Luther and his pregnant wife 6 stayed to minister to sick and frightened people. His 1527 tract Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague7 articulates with care, clarity and courage a biblical response to a time of epidemic.
Caring, not cowering
First, Christians are called to trust God by caring, not cowering; Christian leaders all the more so: ‘those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.’ It is the ‘bitter, knavish devil’ who ‘not only tries to slay and kill but takes delight in making us deathly afraid’ so that ‘under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety’ we ‘forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbour in his troubles.’
Far better to die, serving others, than to run away, thinking only of self- protection. What an important word today, when polls suggest Britain is the most fearful of any nation about this virus, many Christians included. We are called to care – to love, to the very end, and to leave the rest to God.
Careful, not cavalier
But that doesn’t mean we are to self-harm, far less be careless of others.8 ‘This is not trusting God, but tempting him’ says Luther. No. ‘I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it…so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others’ – the equivalent of hand washing and sensible distancing.
But, he adds, ‘if my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely’. Christians are to be those who carefully self-sacrifice not to protect themselves, but others. We take care in order that we might care, not cower.
Key workers are doing that of course, in order to care for people’s physical wellbeing, and we want to do that too. But, as Christians, we care for something more important than physical wellbeing, indeed, something infinitely more important: eternal wellbeing.
Confessing, not cowardice
Historically, believers in times of plague risked a great deal to keep meeting as the church. That wasn’t recklessness, simply that they measured their lives not by earthly lifespan, but by eternity, and they knew the latter was infinitely more important. They knew they needed the Lord, and one another, and that others needed their witness.
National church leaders today quickly acquiesced in churches being classified like nightclubs and theatres, for total closure (some going much further than government restrictions). At a time of fear, with many who have not been near church in years (or ever) seeking help, needing hope, the church has appeared absent to the public: hidden behind bolted doors with leaders merely repeating the slogans of ‘keep safe!’ and ‘remember to wash your hands!’.
But the Confessing church must be seen and heard. Technology still allows us to gather in meaningful ways and by all means possible the church must be open to the world, not closed to it – leaders proclaiming the true, eternal gospel so it is clearly understood. We shall be living through dark days. The irony is that the coronavirus will kill a tiny percentage of people; the collateral stress, social isolation, financial ruin, untreated disease and mental illness will damage and kill vastly more. Who knows how our society will emerge out of all this?
One thing is certain: a gospel of ‘health and safety’ will not suffice. It may win plaudits from society, but it will not win souls to salvation. Our task, however unwelcome, is to bear witness to the eternal gospel so that the public, as Luther put it, may ‘learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.’ This is the only true hope and the only true salvation. This is the church’s message, and its leaders must ensure it is heard.
© WJU Philip, 2020
1 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/15/nation-confronting-mortality-needs-spiritual- leadership-justin/
3 CS Lewis, ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ in Present Concerns: Ethical Essays. (London: Collins, 1986, p73)
4 ibid, p80.
5 as at 26.5.20, studies showed IFR of 0.08-0.4% https://swprs.org/studies-on-covid-19-lethality/. Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, estimates the eventual IFR will be “definitely less than 1 in 1000 and probably closer to 1 in 10,000” i.e. between 0.1% and 0.01%. https://unherd.com/2020/05/oxford-doubles-down-sunetra-gupta-interview/.
6 Their daughter Elizabeth died in infancy, probably as a result of exposure to the plague.
7 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: available here https://davenantinstitute.org/whether-one- may-flee-from-a-deadly-plague/
8 Luther is scathing about any who deliberately and maliciously spread the disease (like the spitting at police or rail workers when knowingly infected we have seen recently): such ‘coarse and wicked people’ judges should turn over ‘to Master Jack, the hangman, as outright and deliberate murderers.’