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!
Frankly I have been quite annoyed about the attitude of Christians to this restriction - it is what it is and we just have to deal with it for another couple of weeks, and then deal with the next level and so on (the 100 limit will be challenging for our church and others in terms of Sunday services for example).
So much for respect for those in Government etc - we should be setting an example rather than protesting and whining about it.
I was disappointed with the 10 limit as much as anyone (as it limits even small groups), but I can see the rationale and I'm happy to comply with it. It isn't forever.
What possibly has been forgotten in the current circumstances is that it is not only Christians whose meetings are limited to 10 people. Muslims and other religious groups have exactly the same restriction of numbers. New Zealand is not a theocratic state and has a common duty to ALL its citizens.
Whatever our ability to meet together, Christ IS Risen, Alleluia!
For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution (1 Peter 2:13)
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing,(Phil 2:14 - 18)
let every person be subject to the ruling authorities (Romans 13:1)
This seems to be the normative guidance on the matter. And after all, Bishops hope their policy decisions to be complied with, even though aware they will not go down well in some sections of the church.
But it seems like not all are agreed :)
A Kindly But Perhaps Disquieting Question
The statistical evidence makes it clear that, as usual, everything is better on the blessed isles. Here, deaths from the plague already outnumber the Union losses in the Civil War, and protestors march on a few state capitols with guns to protest a weak lockdown that has barely been enforced. There, the government appears to have applied some basic epidemiology in a society willing to support that with good results. Perhaps the reasonable governance and social cooperation down under owe something to the Body's centuries of support for the nation-state and its citizens.
As + Peter reports it, however, the success has been secular. Churches do their part, but as he says, it is the part that bars and restaurants, groceries and repair shops, schools and museums also play.
There is no obvious reason why theologians should be asked to deduce the mathematics of pandemic infection from the scriptures, or why presbyters should treat the virus by exorcising it from patients. But reading St James, one might call them to anoint with oil any who are sick. Reading Leviticus, one might imagine that they visit those in quarantine daily. And reading the Acts, one assumes that ministers with the last word on the apostles' writings are likewise raising the dead in due course.** Those who read holy writ with a sturdy determination to find and follow even its obscure rules have surely done at least these obvious things with their usual zeal. But what of the rest of us?
Poor St Basil "the Great" of Caesarea never raised any of the dead, although he did write the first solid treatise on the Holy Spirit ***, an interesting commentary on Genesis 1-2, and prayers that became the Liturgy of St Basil used on the great feasts ****. But he did do the next best thing-- he invented the departmental hospital. As bishop, he was ultimately responsible for the care of the sick, and as an observant one, he suspected that souls whose bodies presented different symptoms would recover along different courses and so would need different kinds of help. So his deacons determined the symptoms of those gravely ill and placed them in wards with like cases for like care.
St Basil's initiative works tolerably well even today, but that he took it is somewhat unsettling. He, of all fathers, surely understood the difference between the supernatural and the natural, things spiritual and things corporal. He presumably respected the medical experience of those who read Galen and tried remedies. But he did not withdraw his clergy from physical care for the sick.
A headline the other day read "The New Church of England: COVID-19 Restores Pride In The NHS." Good news, of course. But the irony there is that the old Church of England built many of the hospitals still used by the NHS. The church founded by Jesus was as interested in the healing of the sick as he was. In those who know this, does COVID-19 restore appreciation for the founders of all those hospitals?
More to the point, at which I have finally arrived, does it make us wonder what the Body should be doing about sick bodies today? How should we discern that?
** The difference between *critical scholarship* and *theological exegesis* is that the former explains the scriptures from the point of view of a modern historian, whilst the latter understands them from the point of view of, at least, Dorcus, Tabitha, and Eutychus.
*** The first robust defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit within the trinitarian economy is attributed to his close friend, St Gregory of Nazianzus.
**** On the dozen *great feasts* in each year, disciples, who are otherwise free to worship in whatever shrine, chapel, or parish church is convenient, are obliged to worship with the whole Body of the place in the *great church* nearest to them. In small towns, that is the cathedral; in larger cities, it is the largest church in each urban quarter; on small islands and in remote areas, parish churches are great churches.
I recall, somewhat loosely, a saying of Winston Churchill - you can do nothing as number two,you must give your full support to number one. Of course if number one proves no good, you must knock him on the head.
(I presume he meant constitutionally).
Surely its a principle, spiritual and pragmatic, that if the course is decided on by number one, publicly you lend your full weight to it. Privately however you can make alternative recommendations, maybe forcefully -but if your advice is rejected, shut up. You can complain later. Don't weaken what force there is in the plan, or the morale of your people.
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