Many decades ago, when I was much, much younger, there was a movie made called "Ten" (or was it "10"?) which went something like "perfect woman" (Bo Derek) encounters "funny guy" (Dudley Moore, I recall) and ups and downs of romance happens and, I can't now recall what, there was an ending. Being a romantic comedy I'll supply this as the ending: happy! I guess this movie was made towards the end of an era when one could make mainstream movies that objectified women by giving them a mark out of ten for bodily appearance.
Anyway, fast forward to last Monday and "ten" or "10" has another meaning entirely for New Zealand and for our churches.
When announcing that NZ would move from Level 3 to Level 2 (tomorrow), PM Jacinda Ardern announced that no gatherings larger than ten people could be held: inside or outside a family home, inside or outside any other venue (such as a church), etc with exceptions being schools, workplaces, restaurants/cafes and (from Thursday next week) bars. This policy will be reviewed in two weeks time.
So, effectively, two more Sundays (minimum) of online worship.
Now, this was a surprise because as recently as the Thursday before the Monday announcement, it had been announced that the restriction re gatherings would be one hundred (100).
Quite a surprise and quite a challenge for those about to hold (say) a funeral. UPDATE: Since writing that sentence our government has, partly through the influence of church leadership, changed the limits on funerals to 50. But the post is mostly about ordinary church services.
But this announcement re "10" has turned out to be very interesting in terms of reactions and responses in the NZ Christian community.
Broadly speaking, my soundings and anecdata over the last few days - Anglican and non-Anglican conversations - suggest these reactions and responses within the NZ Christian community: in no particular order of strength of numerical support or any other measure:
- fury and fear that the government is running a now not so secret anti-Christian agenda;
- hand-wringing concern that the forces of secularization once again marginalise the church so that it is treated as though it barely exists and thus needs not to be consulted with;*
- anger that the church has been treated as a body which merely gathers to "socialise" rather than, first, to worship;*
- urgent invocation of the Bill of Rights in respect of freedom of religion which is now unnecessarily constrained;
- annoyance that the government has more faith in restaurants, bars etc to organise themselves to cater for 100 people than in churches (despite church leadership - including moi - putting hours of time into carefully worked out guidelines for worshipping safely;
- congratulations that the government understands only too well how slack many churches are about observing safe practice;
- acknowledgement that overseas some bad outbreaks of the virus have occurred when congregations gathered for worship and food and drink afterwards;*
- relief that we have at least two more weeks of being safe and/or gaining confidence to meet again with other people.
* = dispositions within myself!
And there seems some chance that the majority of Christians subscribe to the last point in the list above.
For some of us, that is surprising. But it is also the reality we work with through these next weeks in Level 2. I wonder if it reflects a simple physical reality that many of us are very tired.
But there is, I suggest, a number of matters to reflect on and to discuss - when we get the chance - about the character of ourselves as church - in relation to society, to the state, to challenges when they come in respect of disasters and the consequential shift in power dynamics in a nation.
Some final thoughts for this post.
1. Noting my update above re funerals. Actually, yesterday, a significant meeting was held between government and church leaders. I think the church may feel marginalised but need not. (And we could cut the government some slack: this is an extraordinary time and there are many voices trying to get inside their heads).
2. We are living through a disaster. Dynamics have changed in this nation - at least for the duration. Simple analyses focusing on (say) freedom to exercise religion may overlook an even more basic analysis: we are in a life and death crisis.
Just because the church has the freedom to baptise people in our rivers doesn't mean our rights have been curtailed if the police tell us not to baptise when the river is in flood!