Tim Dieppe comments on the effects of the UK lockdown on church ministry.
The UK has now been in some measure of lockdown since 24 March. It is worth reflecting on what has happened the effects on church ministry.
Lockdown is a last resort
Everyone should agree that a state-enforced lockdown is an extreme measure that should only be used in times of absolute emergency and as a very last resort. State lockdowns cause deaths, depression, and poverty. Government figures suggest that the UK lockdown has killed two people for every three who died of coronavirus at the peak of the outbreak. An official government report estimated that overall, the lockdown may cost 200,000 lives due to delays in medical treatment. Already over 200,000 jobs have been lost, and that is before furlough has ended. Lockdown has now caused the deepest recession on record. There are serious mental health consequences too. The question is whether the medicine is worse than the disease?
The decision that the government faced in March was a very difficult one. Professor Neil Fergusson’s model famously predicted 500,000 deaths from coronavirus without lockdown. This modelling later came in for some severe criticism. The government was concerned that the NHS would be overwhelmed with cases which could then result in over a million non-Covid deaths. With advice like that, and a new, unknown virus, who can blame the government for deciding to lockdown? Whether, with hindsight, the lockdown was justified is another question.
Has lockdown worked?
I would argue that it is not clear whether lockdown has worked. The jury is still out. The only good comparison is Sweden which avoided a lockdown, but comparisons are hard to make because of differences in how different countries report data on Covid deaths. The most reliable comparison is overall deaths per population, and on this measure Sweden compares well with Scotland, and Finland, and is close to Denmark. Sweden never closed schools and businesses were allowed to remain open. Its economy has fared much better as a result. If we see a second wave then we will be able to make a further assessment. At present, while cases have risen in certain places in the UK, there is no evidence of an increase in hospital admissions or deaths, meaning that new cases are most likely rising due to massively increased testing. Sweden has not seen a second wave either.
Covid has clearly not killed nearly as many people as the scientists predicted. Ferguson’s model predicted 85,000 deaths in Sweden compared to an actual number of deaths of less than 6,000 without lockdown. This means that, with the benefit of hindsight, the lockdown is unlikely to have been justified.
The original justification for lockdown was to “save the NHS.” The government did a remarkable job creating extra NHS capacity with the Nightingale hospitals. In the event, almost all the increased demand was met by expanding capacity in existing hospitals. Only two of the seven Nightingale hospitals ever admitted patients. Now in mid-August, hospital beds occupied by Covid patients are down 96%, and hospital deaths down 99% from the peak. Some hospitals have no Covid patients. Weekly deaths have been below the 5-year average for seven weeks running. More people have been dying of flu than of Covid since the middle of June. It is very hard to justify any continuation of lockdown measures now on the basis of ‘saving the NHS’.
In all of this there has to be a balance between freedom and safety. We could save over 150,000 lives by reducing the speed limit on roads to 5mph. Is that what the government should do? We could doubtless save lives every flu season with lockdown measures. Would that be appropriate? How many lives will continued social distancing and facemasks save? Is that justified for the considerable loss of freedom and interaction?
Has the policy changed from ‘save the NHS’ to ‘wipe out the virus’? If so, is that really achievable? The only way to eliminate this virus is through herd immunity. And this can only be achieved through a vaccine or through natural infections. Should we continue social-distancing and other measures for many more months until a successful vaccine appears?
The effect on church ministry
The most shocking aspect of lockdown was the enforced closure of churches. While supermarkets, off-licenses, various manufacturing services, and bicycle repair shops were deemed ‘essential’ services, churches faced criminal sanctions for opening their buildings for worship. Until 4 July, many routine church activities were actually illegal. If you had suggested to me just a few months before that gathered Church services would be made illegal in the UK, I would never have believed you. But it happened! To add insult to injury, churches were allowed to open for social care activities such as food banks or blood donation, but if there was any prayer – that would have been illegal!
Christian Concern supported a group of 25 prominent church leaders who challenged the legality of the government’s action in closing churches. An expert report showed how churches could operate at least as safely as supermarkets. Another expert report detailed the Biblical and historic importance of corporate worship. The government then, undoubtedly mindful of the legal pressure from our case, backed down from legal restrictions and issued guidance for churches enabling them to meet again.
Churches not meeting
While there was some initial excitement about increased numbers watching online services at the start of the lockdown, this has very much subsided. Most churches have not opened for worship since late March. Therefore, most Christians in the UK have not attended corporate worship for nearly five months! While we are all grateful for Zoom, YouTube, and other ways of connecting, these do not substitute for in-person prayer, fellowship, worship and other interaction. As John wrote: “I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face.” (3 John 14). I don’t think he would have considered Zoom meetings quite the same.
Churches that have spent many years emphasising the need to meet together and worship together, have suddenly decided that this is not so important after all. There are real questions to grapple with here. I am mindful of someone I know who has just recently become a Christian. He is up for attending a church, but where can I recommend he goes? Online or Zoom churches won’t cut it. You can’t really build relationships that way. Then there are students about to start university. Will they go to online church meetings? I can assure you that churches that are open will be much more attractive.
The gospel of health and safety
What is the balance between health and safety and church ministry? Dave Brennan wrote an article passionately arguing that we need to take our cue primarily from the Bible, and not from the latest health and safety regulations. The government does not have a right to tell Christians not to proclaim salvation on the streets. It also has no right to prohibit corporate worship of God. If the church decides that there are real safety issues, then the church can stop meetings in an emergency for a short period, but for five months?
As Brennan said: “Nearly every story in the Bible is dangerous!” Church history shows us that Christians have not ceased to meet in person or pray for the sick in person in previous, much more deadly pandemics. Yet today’s Christians appear fearful. Appearing fearful is not a good witness. The Church of England came in for harsh criticism for closing its buildings – even for clergy or for private prayer.
The argument is made that the loving thing is to avoid risking passing on the virus. But is it really loving not to visit a bereaved or sick person? Is it loving to deny people the opportunity for corporate worship or in-person prayer ministry? Are these things a good witness? How can we witness to the world of the primary importance of worship? In fact, worship is the most important thing we can do. As John Piper puts it, mission isn’t the goal of the church, worship is. “Missions exist because worship doesn’t.” Mission is invitation to worship.
Can the government really tell churches not to sing in worship? Should Christians obey that over the multiple exhortations to sing to the Lord in scripture? Perhaps in an emergency – but for months? There are real questions about face coverings too. How loving is that to those with hearing impediments who rely on lip reading?
John MacArthur’s example
Prominent US pastor John MacArthur put out a statement on 24 July explaining why the church has a duty to remain open. This statement is bold and brave. He argues that it would be wrong for the church to stop corporate gatherings because the civil authorities do not have the right to prohibit corporate worship. MacArthur’s church originally complied with the government lockdown in California. He argues that “It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.” They did this voluntarily, realising that they did not know the severity of the virus, and in the expectation that it would be short-term measure.
Twenty weeks later, he writes:
“Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services. …”
“In short, as the church, we do not need the state’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded.”
It is well worth reading the whole statement, as well as a helpful FAQ about his church’s position. Subsequently the church has received a cease-and-desist letter threatening jail time or $1,000 daily fine for refusing to shut the church. Lawyers have been hired. I hope MacArthur establishes the right in Californian law for churches to continue to meet. In Florida, church services were ruled to be an “essential activity” back in April. In Ontario, Canada, over 400 church leaders wrote to the government requesting the right to meet. After meeting with the authorities, and threatening civil disobedience, the government quickly allowed them to meet again.
Churches need to meet
Here in the UK, churches can meet, but people are now required by law to wear facemasks. Guidance is very restrictive, insisting that only one person should be allowed to sing. People from different household groups are advised that “wherever possible they should try not to engage in conversation with anyone outside of this group.” If this is followed, then fellowship and prayer ministry is prohibited. Is this what church should be like? At least this guidance does not have the force of law. It is not actually illegal to talk to someone from outside your household group, or even for more than one person to sing.
Churches will need to make their own decisions on what is safe and reasonable for meeting up. It is a conscience issue, and Christians should be gracious to others who take a different view. As Brennan points out, if we believe our Bibles then we can expect many more infections and deadly plagues to come! There’s a scientific case for this too. Should churches close for months on end every time a new disease emerges? How does this witness to the world? How will church historians view this?
I hope and pray that come September, churches will decide enough is enough. We need to meet and worship and pray together in person. We are mandated to do so in the Bible (Hebrews 10:25). Singing together is also mandated (Ephesians 5:19). If schools are opening up (as I strongly believe they should) then churches should do so too. We cannot allow churches to remain closed for months. Churches that remain fearful of meeting can expect their witness to be undermined. Faithful Christians will want to look elsewhere for real fellowship.
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