A few church leaders have put together a letter to the Prime Minister and the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It expresses support for proportional responses to COVID-19 whilst expressing concerns about some measures and where the limit to their support is. They are inviting other ministers to add their signatures.
You can see the letter here.
Now, the originators include some brilliant pastors and Bible teachers., people like Dave Gobbet and Paul Levy, men I count it a privilege to have as brothers in Christ and partners in the Gospel. Furthermore, I share a lot of the sentiment expressed in the letter, so please take my critique in that spirit. So here goes with my thinking.
First of all, I would like to state what I like about the letter. The great thing about it is that it is being up front about our responsibility as Christians and churches. It is good to see something unashamedly gospel focused. Secondly, the authors are careful to explain why they believe that the gathering of churches is a good thing. This is important because simply complaining about limits on our activities is likely to sound selfish, inward looking and uncaring to much of the wider population. This letter is a breath of fresh air in that respect. Thirdly, I am also pleased to see that the authors are expressing the same concerns that many of us have over some time (including here on this blog) about the negative consequences for people generally through restrictions to social contact.
However, here are my problems with the letter. At root, my concern is that the letter relies on general, subjective rhetoric which may lead to disagreements about what we mean by things and also belief by the Government that they are happily following its spirit.
First of all, the authors argue a case for why churches should not be asked to close their buildings again. Now, I for one would be reluctant to see us having to close our building again. However, at the moment, there does not appear to be a desire on the part of the government to do so. Their aim appears to be to avoid a full lock down. So, we need to consider the circumstances in which we would be asked to close again. The answer has to be that it would be at a stage similar to last time where a full lockdown was being imposed due to out of control virus spread. I would note here that both to my surprise and joy, local lockdowns have allowed us to remain open.
So, if we were to shut the building again, then pubs, gyms, cafes, cimenas etc would fall under the same restrictions again. Therefore, this begs two questions of the authors. First of all, if we believed that physical opening was theologically essential and safe during a lockdown, why did we go along with the restrictions first time around? This makes us look inconsistent.
Secondly, I think if I were reading the letter and I was a pub or restaurant owner who had been opening in a responsible fashion within guidelines, recording customers contact details, providing table service or socially distanced queues etc then I would be a bit miffed by my local church having a dig at me in this way. On what basis do the authors make the huge and provocative claim that churches are safer than the hospitality sector. Sure, it is safer to be in a venue where guidance is followed but the things that make some pubs unsafe is when people don’t observe guidance and for example people spill out onto the street crowding together, hugging etc. The problem is that enough of us have passed churches where the same is happening on Sunday morning or watched the protest services happening at John MacArthur’s church to pause before we lob stones in the direction of our local.
Thirdly, I have written before about the slip into a narrative about Government authoritarianism. For my troubles I have had it implied that I am some kind of naïve Boris Johnson cheerleader. I think the evidence is available in things I have written that I hardly fall into that category. However, I have visited countries and have friends from places where the ruling philosophy is at least authoritarian and in some places out and out tyrannical. Against that backdrop, I think we need to be very careful about rushing to use the rhetoric of suffering, persecution and repression.
Furthermore, this is exactly an example of vague and subjective objections. What does it mean to be authoritarian? I suspect if you were to ask Boris not to be authoritarian then he would iummediately and genuinely say “that’s the last thing I want to do.” It would be genuine because his political philosophy is opposed to that and I suspect his personality is too. His biographers tend to comment on his desire to be liked and the problem that is likely to cause where he is reluctant to make the tough and unpopular calls. So “please don’t be authoritarian” ends up being one of those motherhood and apple pie statements.
Secondly, it is subjective isn’t it? What you might consider authoritarian I might not. When I questioned this phrase, I was immediately jumped on by people who wanted to show how sinister the government’s authoritarian agenda was because they were going to use the military. Now as I will argue in a later article, the ability to bring in the armed forces to back fill for civilian emergency services has been something available to and used by liberal democratic countries around the world for many years. Indeed, we did not consider it authoritarian when the military stepped up its presence in response to the Manchester arena bombing or when they turned up to build flood defences. Indeed, there have been 20,000 military personnel available for deployment throughout the pandemic already.
Thirdly, I think it shows a lack of self-awareness. You see, if we are jumping on every pronouncement to say “look at how authoritarian the government is” then we fail to see how we are perceived as church leaders. If you are a pastor and you’ve ever preached on 1 Corinthians 5 or Matthew 18, if you’ve warned people about the potential consequences of sin by reference to those passages, if you’ve gone so far as to enact church discipline, then guess what, there will be a lot of people out there saying “pastor x is authoritarian”. So we might want to think carefully before we throw that charge about.
My other problem is that in making the point that we cannot control the virus, the letter seems to support a position increasingly gaining currency that we just let the majority of the population get on with things as normal and somehow shield the vulnerable from the virus. I think if we were talking about just a small number of people and a very short term measure then that would be fair enough. However, we are not (especially when it comes to churches that are likely to be disproportionally biased towards the vulnerable and elderly once you step away from the big city churches) dealing with small numbers for a short period of time. I am yet to see someone explain how we actually protect the elderly and vulnerable whilst allowing the rest of the world to go on unaffected in away that doesn’t mean completely curtailing their freedom and social interaction completely.
The result is that the letter includes things that would have been better left out. Furthermore as a consequence, it leaves out things we need to be saying. Throughout the virus I have been consistently writing here and raising issues with national leaders as well as politicians the specific concerns about the actual measures that are already causing problems. I would like to see us presenting a united front as church leaders in getting a response to those things.
For those reasons, whilst supporting much of the sentiment, I can’t sign this particular letter. I hope the authors will make modifications to provide something that people like me can sign. In the meantime, do have a look for yourself. If you feel able to then sign it. If you don’t then why not write to the PM supporting the general sentiment whilst expressing your own views on the specific issues.