What’s your opinion about the 19th July re-opening? Strong opinions have been expressed from all sides and Christians and church leaders are not immune to holding such strong views. If you’ve followed this blog carefully over the past few weeks, you’ll have picked up that I’m cautiously positive about the decision to fully re-open. I’m in agreement with those who think this was probably as good a time as any but that we need to proceed with some caution and I’d personally have seen some mitigations included that haven’t been.
However, you probably don’t care that much about my opinion on re-opening. I’m neither a decision maker with influence in government nor an expert in any of the specialist areas of scientific and medical thinking that would qualify me to make a judgement call. That doesn’t prevent me from giving my opinion, it just means you probably shouldn’t and wouldn’t give much weight to it.
Knowing this cautions me against the temptation to make grand statements of moral judgement on those who are responsible for the big decisions. The reality is that we live in uncertain times and there are no easy decisions. So I have no desire to join the ranks of those who are accusing the government of being over cautious and pursuing authoritarianism or those who at the same time claim that our prime minister is making reckless and unethical decisions. I suspect that for the government to be accused by two opposing and contradictory positions, it points to those people attacking them not so much for what they actually are doing and saying they are doing but for what their opponents suspect is their real agenda.
However, this doesn’t mean that Christians, especially those with some responsibility for leadership haven’t got responsibilities with regards to COVID but we do need to be clear about what the responsibility of church leaders is. I would suggest that we have two responsibilities.
The practical care of those within our congregations
Throughout the New Testament, whether it’s the appointment of deacons in Acts 6, the collection for the poor in Jerusalem or the creation of “widows’ lists” we see a concern and a responsibility for the practical care and welfare of God’s people. We are meant to show our love for God by our love and care for each other.
This means that leaders have a responsibility to be as fully informed as possible about COVID. WE cannot simply say that we will leave things to the experts because, and increasingly so as we move into this phase of the pandemic, we are being asked to make decisions locally. Staying informed means that we need to consider all of the information available to us. That means knowing both what the data says and how it is being interpreted. This includes hearing from those perspectives that might not fit the narrative I want to hear. For example, as a July 19th optimist I might not want to hear from those who are much more nervous and sceptical but I need to in order to be properly informed about the risk. It also means that those who are much more cautious and sceptical need to hear from those who are saying they think it will be okay and that the Government have got it roughly right. It concerns me at times that we can be so ready to shut out the voices we don’t want to hear. Ironically as well as some people not wanting to hear the more negative perspectives, it seems that others don’t want to hear from those who are more positive if it doesn’t fit their own personal narrative.
Incidentally, this does not mean that we need to listen to anyone and everyone. The point is to listen to those who are presenting the evidence and interpreting it. It may well be in your best interests to mute those who are simply pushing either panic or complacency more from a political leaning and without reference to hard data.
Our responsibility then is to be informed and to make informed decisions about what is best for our congregations. In the end it does not matter whether or not the Government are going ahead with July 19th, they are doing, and so in the light of that we need to assess and respond to the risk that our congregations face. From that perspective, I’m personally advising that churches continue to include some measures including reduced capacity and face masks. I’m also asking the organisers of large scale events and festivals to consider carefully whether the timing is good . I appreciate that such events are seeking to be COVID secure through restrictions at venues and the requirement for lateral flow tests. My concern would be that this still allows for contraction of COVID between tests and whilst measures may be observed at venues, the lessons we’ve learnt from other events such as the Euros is that it’s what happens around the event.
It’s also why my view is that churches should take a cautious response to re-opening and the relaxation of regulations and guidance around singing and mask wearing. It’s not, as one kind and anonymous soul on twitter suggested that I want to scaremonger. It’s that I think we have this duty to love and care for people. We have a responsibility to those who join in with our church activities and to the honour of the Gospel in our communities.
On that point, I think it is worth a little note about what those who are more cautious may be looking for. In some cases, it is very specifically that they are aware of their own particular physical health risks and they are likely therefore to benefit from churches providing additional space for them and areas where masking is required. However, do remember that for a lot (and this will include many who are already happy to return and have been attending for some time), the caution is not about their own risk of catching COVID but a concern about how the disease transmits and a desire to be cautious not wanting to be party to something that causes transmission. In other words, they will be looking at how the whole church manages COVID security particularly at times when prevalence is high and before we have seen full protection from the vaccines.
However, alongside that practical responsibility, we’ve got another far bigger responsibility and this is the one that pastors and elders are most equipped for.
Equipping God’s people to be godly in the midst of this stage of the pandemic
I cannot say whether the Government’s decision will turn out to have been right or reckless and nor therefore can I promise that everything will be okay. I cannot promise that the hospitals won’t fill up, that young Christians will experience debilitating Long COVID that robs them of their hopes and dreams. I cannot promise that believers won’t find themselves on ITU and I cannot guarantee that we won’t lose more loved ones to this horrific virus.
However, I can talk about how we should face these uncertain and desperate times. I can point people to the sure and certain hope we have in the Saviour who will never let us down or fail us. I can point away from hope in Boris’s “Freedom Day” to a better Freedom Day, the Freedom Day that Romans 8:18-23
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
As well as living with certain hope, we want to encourage believers not just to survive the pandemic but to have learnt to be holy in it. This means we can look at how God’s Word asks us to respond to the situation. This includes:
- Learning not to fear death
- Showing love to others by responsible behaviour
- Pointing others to Christ as the only hope
Finally, I can begin to help people see where they are in the unfolding story of God’s purposes and to look to what God is doing and saying in the situation.
If my views about the rights and wrongs of the 19th July turn out to be wrong and I get myy predictions about the potential outcome wrong then that will have minimal consequences. However, getting my responsibilities to my brothers and sisters in Christ right has serious consequences. I hope my cautious optimism about reopening proves right because that will be good news for everyone. However far more important is to know that believers have grown in Christ and in godliness through all of this and that others have come to faith in him.
 For example, there is a persistent belief that the Government have resumed a “herd immunity by natural infection” approach or “let it rip”.