The South African government’s allowance of church gatherings (of up to 50 people) to resume at level 3, next week Monday 1 June 2020, is exposing a divided church and society… once again! As usual, socio-ethical issues and considerations become divisive, even acrimonious. It shouldn’t be! The church ought lead the way as servant in society, and particularly in this instance.
SOME political parties, Christian organisations and SOME denominations have been lobbying the government for opening of church meetings at level 3. And SOME argue on the basis of ‘religious rights’. The government has yielded to their request. This is not advisable. It’s based on wrong thinking, as the push back from many other church leaders and people in our society has shown.
If we were ‘shut down’ for reasons of persecution, of faith, of conscience, etc, it would be a different matter. But, in this case, it’s a matter of health for the good of the nation. Here is the issue: If the curve had peaked and was decisively going down, it is then a consideration – as is now the case in many European nations. We have yet to see the painful peak in South Africa. Winter is here – June and July could be the worst months. To gather together now, despite all the sanitisation and distancing precautions in place, would be foolish, in my view.
Gatherings of up to 50 people, no matter where, at this point, can become places of contamination. If restaurants and cinemas and other such places are not allowed to open at level 3, why churches? Restarting businesses is a different matter: It is so the economy does not collapse and people don’t starve, though work too comes with the health risks. In our disparate societal context, suburban churches have the resources to implement all the required safety measures (which are not in themselves a guarantee of ‘safety proof’). The majority of churches, however, do not have the same luxury (in townships, informal settlements, rural areas). God forbid that church meetings become an epicentre of spreading this virulent virus.
We can continue to BE church in the home and in society without having to go TO church in a building. Gathering together in a facility for public worship is only A PART of being church, it’s not THE part. So, we can continue to find creative ways to be and do church without having to go to church at this time, for the health and good of our nation, as servant and example.
In conclusion: ‘to meet or not to meet?’. We must go slow. We could…
A) Continue the faithful social service engagement, relational pastoral care and online church, as has been the priority throughout lockdown;
B) Resume small home groups in a lounge – like visiting a few friends – with the necessary precautions in place (masks, washing hands, social distance). This is controversial as one source says house visiting is allowed at level 3 and another says not. If it is not, then we continue online small groups.
C) Relocate the recordings and live-streaming of Sunday and other services to the church facility (if there is one), but with up to 10 people present, such as helpers, worship team, preacher, etc. This is far more controllable than 50 people (in any case, how can we control who comes and who doesn’t come? And turn away people after 50 have arrived?)
D) And to encourage the vulnerable (elderly, sickly, etc) to stay home, and to continue to care for them in the current context.
Often socio-ethical decisions involves the choice of ‘the lesser of evils’. The ‘good’ or ‘best’ for us as church is not always for the good of society. Let us be patient, bide our time, and use it in service of the nation’s greater good, for health sake. This virus is vicious and highly contagious. May we, as Church, set the example and not be part of the pandemic problem! God have mercy on us! N’kosi Sikelela iAfrika!