South African Viewpoint: Don't go to church…?

  • Dr Anthony Egan SJ

Dr Anthony Egan SJ

Dr Anthony Egan SJ

Source: Jesuit Institute South Africa

Now that we are allowed to go to church, subject to certain restrictions, should we? This question admits no easy answers. On balance, my position is (and this may surprise you): No!

We could say: If business can resume, why can't we? I'm unconvinced. They are two different categories. If we don't restart companies the economy collapses and everyone starves. Emergency food sources are both badly administered and in limited supply - and cost money to produce, which requires businesses and taxes. Yes, reopening of business entails a serious health risk even with precautions in place. But, on balance, it's probably the lesser evil.

But how your average church is going to enforce the existing restrictions that President Ramaphosa has decreed is anyone's guess. It's a question of both capacity and will.

Can churches, in reality, limit congregations to 50? How? Who gets to come to services? And if we want everyone to come to church how many services are possible in a day to meet needs? This is particularly acute where there are few ordained ministers, often serving several churches or 'out-stations'. Similarly, does the average church have the capacity to deep clean itself regularly and ensure social distancing?

I can imagine the scene: "The Lord be with you…Oi! You two in the third row: keep two metres apart! Let us pray…I said, two metres!"

Do we as the church have the will to follow the new precautions? I don't think so. Part of this is the tension between our theology and the present reality. I suspect that many of us believe that in church we'll somehow be safe. God will protect us.

Well, this didn't happen during the 14th Century Great Plague. Nor in the 1918-1919 Influenza. It's also a rather dangerous and dare I say 'magical' understanding of God. God does not violate the laws of nature and human free will.

I also detect a failure of religious imagination. Is spiritual life only about attending services? Are we merely 'Sunday Christians' (insert any other religious tradition here if you are not Christian)? We should be experimenting at this time with how to be religious beyond this - and hopefully, still live it when we can safely return to 'normality'.

Behind this presidential decision, I suspect, lies two factors. The first is political pressure from religious communities who may be reminding him of future elections. Understandable, but short-sighted: unless we change the rules, dead people can't vote. The second may be more complex: a recognition that strict lockdown is economically, socially and culturally unviable in the long term. Lockdown is about giving public health time to prepare for an epidemic, not actually preventing infection. We can't wait two years for a cure.

Ethical decisions sometimes entail choices of lesser evils. Not ideal, I'll admit, and making such decisions do not make you feel good. In such cases, I find that honesty helps. The good is not always the 'best'. More careful and honest thinking is needed before we rush back to church.

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Tags: South Africa, Jesuit Institute, Covid-19, Churches Reopening, Anthony Egan SJ

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