Excepting churches from lockdown: the case against

Why church services (excepting funerals) should not be an exception to lockdown.

The UK government has announced that as of Thursday, public places of worship in England should close except for certain limited activities, which do not include ordinary weekly gatherings for worship. This move has understandably attracted considerable concern and criticism from leaders of a number of churches and denominations, and from those of other religious communities, and they have advanced forthright public arguments for making places of religious worship an exception to lockdown.

The case for an exception

In one such case, a letter published today (Tuesday 3rd Nov), several prominent leaders have done so on grounds that capture many of the reasons being advanced elsewhere: that the churches and other spaces are ‘COVID-secure’; that public worship is essential to sustaining the service offered by faith communities, and in particular the mental health of their volunteers; that public worship fosters the connectivity, social cohesion and solidarity needed for resilience during the pandemic; that participating in worship helps mitigate the physical and psychological effects of social isolation, trauma and grief, particularly for people who are Black or Asian or from other ethnic minorities; that it is a sign of hope; and that no scientific rationale for closing these spaces for public worship has been given (as the President and Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and now the Evangelical Alliance, have demanded one should be). The other argument I have seen on social media concerns the threat posed by this measure to freedom of religion. All told, it seems a powerful cogent case, and it is being advanced passionately and, I believe, with good intent.

In this post, however, I want to make a case for the alternative point of view, in the interests of furthering theological reflection on the issue. I’m going to focus on churches within the context of Christian tradition, broadly construed, as that’s what I know best and where I am most implicated.

Some basic assumptions

Let’s assume that reducing contact between members of different households reduces transmission of the virus, and so reduces cases, reduces the exposure of those more vulnerable to the effects of the disease, with knock-on effects in terms of lowering rates of hospitalisation and deaths, as well as cases of long covid.

Let’s assume that, as SAGE advise, it is past time for measures of this severity in order to bring down the rate of transmission and number of cases to manageable levels and save lives.

Let’s also assume that complying with reasonable, but imperfect measures to that end is one expression of the love of neighbour that is commanded of Christians, which is pertinent to our situation. We may love our neighbours, that is, by complying with measures we are warranted in believing will help keep them safe from a dangerous, contagious disease and prevent the health care systems which care for them and us in respect of this and many other conditions from being overwhelmed. One could also extend that case to the economic and societal effects of the disease.

There’s good grounds in scripture and tradition to hold that love of neighbour, in its inseparability from love of God, is the height of Christian discipleship, the chiefest of those virtues by which we may imitate God’s own character, and the foremost form by which we may participate in the love of God, set forth in Jesus Christ, that is shed abroad by the Spirit.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that attending a short, socially distanced service, with no congregational singing, is among the less risky forms of gathered contact, as far as we can tell. (I’m a bit cautious about declaring certain spaces that comply with government guidance to be ‘Covid-secure’; perhaps one can stipulate a definition of that term which avoids its obvious connotations. I fear it invites a level of assurance about a given indoor space which I find hard to credit given the mitigations put in place which assume the circulation of the virus in those present and the risk of its transmission).

Love of neighbour and solidarity in lockdown

I don’t know if it’s true that public worship in churches in this way carries this relatively low level of risk of transmission. Supposing that it is, there’s nevertheless good reason for churches not to be excepted from lockdown restrictions, despite the real cost that church communities, like other religious communities, pay for not being able to meet, and for which costs they can give stark public benefit reasons, as well as theological accounts.

it is about solidarity in lockdown and the love of neighbour. Lots of groups and associations can make analogous cases about relative risks, some perhaps stronger than those of the churches. But once you start granting extra exceptions of this kind, you complicate the message and reduce its efficacy, as the PM pointed out to the House of Commons on Monday. To ask government to take that risk in order to allow corporate worship in person is to compromise the love of neighbour we show in part by keeping our distance in solidarity along with everyone else. It is a logic which, if advanced by every group who could plausibly employ it, and if accepted by government in even a minority of the cases to which it applies, would entail the piecemeal dismantling of lockdown. It would erode a public health measure whose efficacy depends on clear intelligibility and widespread public trust, acceptance and adherence. It would dismantle it, exception by exception, at a time when public trust and patience is probably stretched thin, polling support for this lockdown notwithstanding.

But what of the goods listed above that are fostered by public worship and which sustain the voluntary service of Christians, amongst other religious people? This is a very serious argument, and, without idealising Christian community or Christian practices, I’m quite prepared to accept that such goods are vital and that participating in public worship may well foster them for most participants, most of the time, even in the messy, troubled, sinful communities Christians actually belong to. There are real, high costs to this lockdown measure in the constriction of such means of common social grace as churches share with other forms of association and community. It is easy, perhaps, to lose sight of the costs to particular people with particular needs, including various groups vulnerable to this coronavirus, including those suffering disadvantageous circumstances for health due to broader structural inequalities, such as those in which racial injustice is a key factor.

Yet those vulnerabilities and costs may be much greater and longer lasting if lockdown is not effective. That is the calculation of risks and benefits held forth by the scientific advice the government is acting upon. And here the danger of the erosion of lockdown by the accretion of exceptions, and the Christian calling to love and solidarity with our neighbours, tell again. In the limited circumstances constrained by the long term history of the degrading of public health systems, the effects of poverty and structural injustice, and the more immediate history of the handling of the pandemic, as with all situations marked by the multiple deformations of sin upon structure, the distribution of power, character and bodies, there seem to be no choices which do not involve some degree of conflict between limited precious goods.

At the same time, it is also possible to underestimate the extensity and depths of the gracious goodness of God in those same situations and amongst and between those who inhabit them. There may be and surely have been imaginative forms of mitigation of those costs of lockdown, which offer an experience of connection, solidarity and cohesion.

But the goods at stake in church services are out of all comparison with those of golf clubs or other associations!

Some of them are.

But to insist on this way of sharing in these goods seems to risk amounting to turning them into obstacles to the love of neighbour and so to the love of God and so they also risk deforming them. And it is difficult to believe that they are really in competition with that twin love which binds us to God and whose edification is the goal of all exposition of Scripture, as Augustine thought in on Christian teaching, and, I would venture, all sacraments and other sacred signs and gestures. (This would take another long post to substantiate but I don’t then it’s controversial to think of love and peace as that which churches are called to pursue as the goal of their sociality [Augustine again], and one of the chief ends of Eucharistic celebration, of participation in Christ and incorporation in his body thereby).

But what if some of the spiritual goods fostered in church gatherings, including and above all the loves of God and neighbour, are bound up with the social forms of those gatherings? What if in addition our learning of them is always critical, never to be presumed or stored like capital, whatever our degree of sanctification and is seriously impaired if we can’t gather? Doesn’t that make church services more like schools than golf clubs? Doesn’t it strengthen the case for making them an exception?

I think this is a potent objection which would be stronger if lockdown became semi-permanent state. However, there are a number of things that tell against it. First, love of others which tends to the good of those loving and beloved may be fostered by other forms of association beside the church, so we shouldn’t make ourselves a stark exception. Second, churches may be (will inevitably be) places of deformed loves as well as schools of virtue, so we shouldn’t overstate the premise of the objection. Third, by the grace of God we may learn love of neighbour in a condition of relative dispersal as well as gathering and that, too, is intrinsic to the social form of (ideal) Christian community. This time, fourth, may be an extended moment of dispersal, in which we are to learn in that way. And, fifth, and to repeat, by turning away from neighbour (and so from God) by insisting on the preservation of our goods as exceptions makes the social form of the churches into a kind enclosure, which deforms the very goods they are meant to build up.

But these measures are an infringement of our freedom of religion, which is a fundamental right in our democracy!

This is certainly a deeply serious concern, perhaps felt most deeply by religious groups other than C of E because of the historic associations. And it’s one I’m not well qualified to comment upon. So take what follows with as much salt as you deem prudent.

My ignorant guess would be that lockdown measures may be justified under the Human Rights Act (1998), as explained by the EHRC here, if they are ‘lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to protect’ public health: the same justification would apply to the way lockdown infringes on the freedom of association, and, I would imagine, the freedom to a private life. And concerns about threats to those freedoms are also deeply serious and rightly are given voice by a number of MPs. However, we are in a pandemic and I think, on the basis of the advice of well-qualified scientists with the right collective expertise and access to the best evidence available, and subject to democratic scrutiny, consent and timely review, and to a relatively short time limit, I can see how it is justified. In that case, it seems difficult to make an exception for one freedom over others, especially in a pluralistic society. Christians, moreover, have Christian reasons for not wanting to except themselves from the demands placed on wider society in respect of these public health measures, for the reasons given above.

2 thoughts on “Excepting churches from lockdown: the case against

  1. Thank you for a balanced and cogent discussion of a difficult issue. But I do wonder whether your analysis deals adequately with the statistical realities for small church communities. The main thrust of your argument is that the undeniable goods that active participation in physical worship brings to worshippers (and perhaps to society more widely) must be balanced against the potential harms to our ‘generic’ neighbours whom we are called upon to love as much as we love God, and through which love of neighbour our love for God is demonstrated and established.

    At the time you wrote this piece, the prevalence of Covid-19 infection was lower than it is now, but even now, in London, it’s around 500/100,000 – i.e. 1/2%. My post-lockdown congregation has never exceeded 35 and averages around 25. The number of people, therefore, that on average are infected with Covid-19 when they come to worship will be 1/8th of a person – so that people would need to come to mass 8 times before there was a statistical chance of encountering an infected person. Of course, probabilities are just that, and it’s possible that the first person a member of the congregation meets the first time they attend is an infected person. But it is very unlikely. And simply meeting an infected person is not sufficient to become infected, given the strict mitigations we have put in place.

    I think that this shifts the balance of benefits and harms on which your piece rests. The 100% chance of a benefit (given that people attend voluntarily, it’s reasonable to assume that they do so because they are anxious to receive the benefits of attendance) has to be set against the much less than 1/2% chance of becoming infected, or of infecting others. I entirely accept your reasoning about our fundamental and primary responsibility towards our neighbours, but I think you misjudge the relativities here.

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    1. Hi Father Stephen (if I may), thanks for reading and for this comment. I think my argument here explicitly accepts, for the sake of argument, that church services with appropriate mitigations are low risk. My argument doesn’t weigh up the costs of not holding services against the risks of transmission to participants, as I think you imply. It weighs up that cost against the risks of weakening the clarity, force and so efficacy of lockdown measures, and the risks that weakening involves to our neighbours.

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