local lockdowns and the local church

When Leicester went back into “lockdown” the Government explained that their strategy would be what they referred to as “whack-a-mole” acting quickly with local lockdowns to supress new spikes. Last night, we saw the most significant example of this yet as parts of West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester had new restrictions imposed. This is something of significant interest and concern to me. My own parents live in Bradford and so as a family we will be affected by the new measures. I’m also aware that Sandwell, and specifically Smethwick have been identified as areas where there is a potential risk of similar measures (we have already received warnings about this from our public health director).  So, I’m watching carefully to see what happens.

We have a window now to think and plan ahead for what would happen if there was a return to lockdown measures in our locality. The measures proposed for Bradford, Calderdale and Oldham mean that households should not mix indoors. This means no visits to private homes and no meeting up for a meal at the pub. However, the pubs, cinemas and churches may remain open for the time-being.[1]

Now, that does raise the question about what churches should do in the situation.  My friend Steve Kneale has said that his church, Oldham Bethel plan to open as normal next Sunday and until/unless they are advised that they need to close again. There is a good argument for this approach.  The current situation is that we are already instructed to ensure that households do not interact when they come into our buildings.

I think there is also a case for churches to choose to close again temporarily if such measures are in place.  There are a couple of reasons for this. First, a spike in the virus locally may affect your risk assessment and you will need to review it accordingly. This may well depend on the local context and whether your church is directly affected by the local spike. Other local factors may include the current proportion of your congregation attending the physical meeting and the proportion continuing to engage online.

Second, whilst those localised guidelines mean that churches could meet, some may decide that this does not mean that they should meet. There is the risk, in the middle of a localised lockdown that if people see our churches opening whilst they are being asked to comply with strict measures that we are seen as irresponsible and selfish and that this causes resentment.[2]

Personally, I have a strong level of sympathy with the second view and would consider it here, especially if we had the alternative option of running an outdoor service. However, I think it is important to emphasise that we have freedom here. I can see the wisdom in Steve’s approach and likewise, he was quick to indicate that he saw the other approach as legitimate.  I would also add that as circumstances evolve, you might see situations where a church reviews and changes their approach. For example, Oldham Bethel might start by opening but then decide to close for a bit. We could easily start by pausing public opening but then choose to resume again as we get more of a handle on the local situation.

Notice how this is a much better approach than the culture war accusations of spiritual disobedience that we have seen flying about in the States.

It is important that we also have a process in place for such events. So, if a localised lockdown were to happen here then.

  • Stage 1 would be to download and check the guidance
  • Stage 2 would be a conversation between the elders about what we wanted to do
  • Stage 3 would involve updating risk assessments based on new information
  • Stage 4 would be a zoom meeting with the Trustees to agree and ratify the way forward.

I am praying that it will not come to this locally and also that the localised measures in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Leicester will be short lived. However, we need to be ready for such events to be part of life with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. It is important that we continue to act with a concern to glorify God, not cause a stumbling block to unbelievers looking on, love and care for our fellowships and maintain unity with each other in Christ during this pandemic.

[1] See https://www.gov.uk/guidance/north-west-of-england-local-restrictions-what-you-can-and-cannot-do

[2] Note, I am not saying that we would be irresponsible, just that some people locally and the local media may view things that way.

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