A Twitter buddy has fairly regularly been posing the question, Why have church leaders been so deferential to the government imposing restrictions on churches during our period of Lockdown?
Alongside news of church leaders in conflict with authorities in countries such as the USA and Britain (which includes CofE vicars in conflict with their bishops over churches being shut up), NZ church leaders have had an interesting couple of months in Lockdown (to speak generally at this point).
In Level 4 when the whole country was locked down the issues were whether clergy should have been deemed "essential workers" and why could not clergy be permitted to pray with those who were dying and to take funerals. Were church leaders too deferential to the government?
In Level 3, when funerals and weddings for up to 10 people were permitted, Were church leaders too deferential to the government about that limit on funerals? (Funerals for the most part much more difficult to postpone than weddings.)
In (the current state of) Level 2, where we may hold church services for 10 or fewer people (and, under certain conditions, funerals for 50 or fewer people) while various commercial enterprises involving people socialising (from bars to brothels, though the better comparison with churches might be schools) may entertain higher numbers, Are church leaders being too deferential to the government?
[Note in passing: yesterday I was interviewed about the limits, along with Paul Martin, Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, see here. See also this Taonga article.]
Today (Monday 25 May 2020), when we expect the government to announce a raising of the limit on gatherings including religious services (but with a strong hint to date that it might be as low as a rise to 20 or fewer persons), Will church leaders be too deferential to the government?
Speaking quite personally, I feel somewhat goaded by the question of deferentiality.
After all, what is leadership if it lacks boldness and bravery, refrains from speaking truth to power and so forth? Am I and colleagues somewhat "wet" in the face of this (at worst) trampling on the rights of churches to worship freely or (at best) seeming ignorant sidelining of the church by a government that appears not to understand churches? (After all, for all of us inspired by the Barths and Bonhoeffers of 1930s Germany, the true test of leadership, surely, is to NOT be deferential to a government imposing control on the churches!)
I also find my goaded self being a bit defensive. I have an explanation, a justification for this seeming "deferentiality". Would you like to hear it? (Well, you are reading this post!).
However, I recognise that, whatever I say here, future historians might adjudicate that we have been too deferential. So, it maybe that I and others are guilty as charged.
But, for what it is worth, and may a future historian please read this before making their adjudication, here are some thoughts.
(1) In Lockdown, we have never been in Nazi German or Stalinist Russia or any other kind of anti-Christian dictatorship. We have been in a global Pandemic, guided by epidemiologists as to the best way to combat transmission and our government's Minister of Health is a Christian and our Director-General of Health is a Christian. In general terms, deferentiality by everyone, including church leaders, has been deferentiality to a common national cause. This period has been about working with the government for the common good. This has not been a period to be anxious about "Bill of Rights" freedoms to exercise the practice of our faith etc.
(2) There have been very good reasons for some restrictions placed on Christian ministry. For example, to have been granted the right (in the first weeks at least) to minister to dying people would have been to also require PPE gear to be appropriately protected when making that pastoral call. But the reasonable priority was for doctors and nurses to have that equipment. (Nevertheless, I would acknowledge, and future historians may argue that after those first few weeks, the government and health boards could have changed the restrictions once PPE supplies improved.)
(3) Actually, anecdotally, some church leaders have wanted to be less deferential than they have appeared to be but, it turns out, their congregations have not shared their enthusiasm. Christians are human beings and as human beings they can read news reports about the spread of the virus and the importance of strict control of how we engage with other human beings to prevent spread. Effectively it appears that many church leaders’ deferentiality to the government has been deepened rather than weakened by their congregations.
(4) Ultimately, our deferentiality has been to the virus! If COVID-19 has taught humanity anything, it is that it demands respect. Disrespect this virus at your personal peril. The tragic narrative of the past few months includes many stories of churches around the world meeting in defiance of the virus only to have church members (and leaders!) catch the virus, sometimes leading to death. If Kiwi Christians have the good sense to show deferentiality to the virus, why would church leaders differ from their good sense?
(5) Nevertheless, a sharp question arises when we ask about some aspects of the Lockdown restrictions.
Should church leaders, for example, have been much more aggressive in response to perceived contradictions between the Level 2 restriction to 10 or fewer people being able to meet in church and many more being able to meet in restaurants and conferences?
Should we have made a stronger case for our ability to create and implement restrictive conditions in order that any gatherings would conform to the kinds of conditions that businesses and schools are being made to follow?
(6) Then, there are the counter questions. Currently, as I write, there are some colleagues drawing attention to this news item, out of Germany, in which 40 people, gathering for worship after their churches have re-opened, have contracted the virus. Shouldn't church leaders back off any pressure on the government for churches to re-open, be patient, and wait for the government to exercise its scientifically informed wisdom? On this line of thinking, deferentiality, contra my Twitter buddy, is a very good thing!
For what it is worth, I think some care is needed with the German news story. First, this is an outbreak after permission had been given, not when a church completely lost deferentiality and defied the German government by holding a service. Secondly, we are not Germany, by which I mean that we have a remarkable situation in which there has been no case of community transmission of the virus for several weeks. The very few cases now appearing are all (I repeat, all) related to known clusters. That is, the risk of an outbreak in a re-opened NZ church is effectively zero.
That is enough - let's see what the government says later today.
Update: our government has lifted the limit on gatherings including church services from 10 to 100 while we are in Level 2. And we might be out of that Level into Level 1 before many weeks pass.