Who are our COVID decisions for?

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I have had a little bit of pushback on my latest COVID advice, specifically the recommendation that people are encouraged to continue to wear face masks for a little longer even after the legal requirement has been dropped for England. So I thought it was worth sharing a little bit more of my thinking here.

First of all, it’s worth restating and clarifying what I was proposing.  My recommendation is not that churches should impose a requirement that facemasks must be word and definitely not at all times. Rather, I’m suggesting that over a transitional period people are encouraged to keep wearing masks when moving about buildings, especially in crowded/confined spaces (the pinch points in a building). I also suggested that some might want to go a little further and ask people to consider continuing to wear a face mask when singing.

The push back I’ve received included that:

  • The risk of transmission is now low (particularly in churches) and so we don’t need to worry about restrictions
  • Whilst pastoral sensitivity might encourage us to take measures, risk management doesn’t.
  • People are eager to get back to normal and get rid of their masks, there isn’t need for a transition period.

Taking these in order. First, I have consistently advised that risk management is about more than the objective risk of people being infected, there are other risks in terms of the impact on people’s confidence in the church both from within and without. Secondly, whatever our views on measures, we do need to be clear that we are a long way from the situation where the risk of transmission is low. Whilst cases are now much lower than at the Omicron peak, they are still between 2-3 times the rates we were seeing in the Autumn and significantly higher than the Alpha and Delta case peaks. Churches therefore remain places where risk is significant. The thing that makes churches relatively safe is the high level of compliance both with regulations and voluntary measures. Anecdotally I’m hearing more examples of church-based transmission than at any point during the pandemic.

However, I want to give a little bit more attention to the third challenge here because I think it is significant for us. I appreciate that the description is true of many church attendees and their leaders but I’m not sure if this reflects the overall church situation. I personally know of lots of churches that were still imposing quite significant social distancing and masking restrictions back in November.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that conservative evangelicals are probably in the minority among the wider evangelical community in terms of their enthusiasm for a return to “normal.”  I think there are potentially some reasons for this reflecting our culture, theology and history.  Theologically I think there is a lot more caution towards common grace and general revelation. Socially, our moral conservatism has meant that we are also more sympathetic to socially conservative commentators who tend to be right leaning/libertarian in their philosophical and political outlook.  Further, our experience of questionable policing, laws and legal decisions especially around sexual ethics has left many of us wary of the authorities and less likely to lend them our trust.

However, just as conservative evangelicals are really in the minority even within evangelicalism, on theology, so too we are likely to find ourselves in the cultural minority.  What this means is that the wider evangelical, Christian and indeed secular cultures are likely to be more supportive of COVID measures and cautious about lifting them.

This brings me back to my starter question. “Who are we putting measures in place for?” From time to time I meet people who insist that the right and only way of doing church involves wearing suits, using the AV and singing only traditional, sombre hymns.  They also point to this as being something that works.  They can give examples of larger churches that have followed this approach. However, the ability to draw a crowd, often from a wide geographical area to benefit from this particular niche does not mean that the approach is effective at reaching and discipling the vast majority of people. 

In the same way, we can potentially fill our buildings with enough Christians who are angry at the regulations and eager to thrown off their face masks.  I suspect this will particularly appeal to men in their 40s and 50s. Perhaps there is something good about engaging such people.

However, if we do this without careful consideration then we may find that there are a lot of people who will experience this as a lack of love and concern. They are the ones who will increasingly drift. If they do attend then they are likely to be less engaged and less frequent.  Our lack of concern about the risks will make them much more hesitant.

This is why I want us to consider who we take steps for. Personally I hate wearing a mask, I’m sceptical about a lot of measures and I can’t wait for all of this to be all over. But I need to ask myself whether or not I’m preferring the needs of others and seeking to show love in my decisions and actions.

This is why I’m encouraging a little caution as we move out of the Omicron wave.  This isn’t legalistic and certainly not intended to be prescriptive. Different churches in different contexts will need t find the right approach for their context. However, I would encourage each of us to consider carefully both the motives for and the impact of our decisions on the body and on those we are witnessing to.

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