Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy, summarises what was discussed at a recent online forum run by Affinity on the Church’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Affinity organised an online forum about coronavirus and the Church which took place on Monday. It was really well-organised with six speakers each given 15 minutes to present on different aspects of the topic, followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. The event was well-supported and the whole thing was captured on YouTube here. I have summarised the talks below which were all excellent, though sometimes with differing perspectives.
Submission to the authorities
First up was John Stevens, National Director of FIEC. John’s topic was Submission to the authorities: when to obey God rather than men. John gave a short exposition of Romans 13:1-7 and argued first that the Bible commands us to submit to authorities, which involves obedience and honour. But John also pointed out that the command to submit is not a command to support, and that therefore Christians can challenge laws that we disagree with and insist on our legal rights too. In a democracy, this includes lobbying and sometimes protesting. We are obliged to speak prophetically to those in authority. John concluded that the Bible commands us to disobey authorities only if obedience would be sinful. Examples include the Hebrew midwives, Rahab and the spies, Daniel, and the apostles refusing to stop speaking. John argued that it is not sinful to wear a face mask and that it is not sinful to be unable to gather as a large group on Sunday mornings. He also argued that not singing is not sinful too, and that therefore we should obey these various instructions.
In the Q&A John was asked why he hadn’t signed the open letter to the Prime Minister and First Ministers. He explained that although he agrees with two thirds of the letter, he doesn’t agree with no lockdowns and does not agree with Christian exceptionalism – which leads us to the next presentation.
Evangelism and discipleship: gathering in person versus online church
Matthew Roberts, Minister of Trinity Church York, followed with a presentation about the importance of gathered church. Matthew explained that he takes a different view to John and that his entire argument rests on Christian exceptionalism. He argued that assembling the people of God is the most important of all human activities, and that physical gathering is essential to what a church is.
Matthew expounded on four reasons that assembling church is so significant. First the definition of the Church is the assembly of Jesus Christ. Words used for the church bolster this conviction, such as ‘body of Christ’, ‘bride of Christ’. Second, assembling to worship is the central act of believers throughout world history. This includes the eternal future of God’s creation as a great assembly, and New Testament worship which is now participating in the heavenly assembly (Heb 12:22-23). Third, gathering is the location of God’s means of grace. As Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered” (Matt 18:20), then he is present. The sacraments can only be administered when people are gathered. The assembly of God’s people is a witness to the world (1 Cor 14). Fourth, gathered worship is the most important part of human existence. We were made to worship with others in the assembly of the saints. This is therefore critical to evangelism, in fact the central evangelistic action.
Matthew concluded by arguing that the government does not have the authority to decide whether Christians can meet. It does not have the competence to judge the harm of Christians not gathering to worship God. This is not just harm to Christians, but harm to the nation, and harm to God’s glory.
In the Q&A Matthew argued (against John Stevens) that sin is not the only criteria of obedience to the government. He illustrated with whether it would be a sin not to sleep in the same bed as his wife? No, it wouldn’t for a short time, but it would nevertheless be wrong for the government to ban him from sleeping with his wife, and therefore, (by implication) he would disobey such an instruction.
Peter Saunders, CEO of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association gave a medical perspective on coronavirus. The slides he used are available here. He explained that globally cases are going up, but it is very different in different countries. According to Worldometer there have been over 1 million deaths so far. Peter thinks the best estimate of people who have had the disease is around 10% according to The Lancet. 80% of cases are mild, most deaths are older. Only 1% of those who died had no pre-existing conditions. Coronavirus is nowhere near as dangerous as Ebola or Bird Flu and is less infectious than Measles and Chickenpox. Peter argued that the infection fatality rate is probably 0.5-1.5% which is around 10x more deadly than normal flu. It is nowhere near the worst plagues in history but is getting into the top ten.
There are huge collateral effects of lockdown measures. WHO has warned that more children could die from missed vaccinations than from Covid-19 itself. An estimated 71m will move into extreme poverty. There are huge delays in treatment for non-communicable diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes). The Lancet argued that “This pandemic is dismantling the foundations for protecting and advancing health.” Peter argued that social distancing, hand hygiene and masks are effective, and that lockdown flattens the curve.
Peter concluded that this is a highly complex subject with lots of controversies, particularly around what government policy should be, but also around the infection fatality rate and some of the other scientific issues.
Engaging with the science: weighing our own scientific and policy opinions
Evangelist Michael Ots discussed how we can speak out in criticism of scientific and policy opinions. People often ask why we should speak about this if we are not experts? In response, Michael cited a conversation with John Lennox who said that it is right for us to speak on issues like this because the debate is really about the presuppositions, which need to be challenged.
Michael explained that there are two big presuppositions. First is the expectation that life can be totally safe and risk free. Society values physical health too highly. We do not live in a risk-free world. There are side-effects of safety measures on physical and mental health, and also spiritual risks involved. Second is the unrivalled confidence that Western society has in science to solve all our problems which comes alongside our fear of death. We put too much faith in science. There is not only one ‘science’ view. Death is not merely a problem to be solved, but a divine decree for humanity. As Jesus said: “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Matt 16:25). Both of these presuppositions need challenging and we need to say that it is really important that government is not ‘led by the science.’ C.S. Lewis said “I dread specialists in power, because they are speaking outside their special subjects.” I note that in the same essay Lewis said: “I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in.” How prophetic!
In the Q&A Michael was asked if there was a risk that we get so obsessed with the debate that we lose time and energy on engaging with the gospel. Michael agreed, but also said that people like talking about these issues and that a discussion about how fearful we are about death, for example, can be used as an avenue for the gospel.
Political and legal engagement: why and how
I was privileged to be asked to speak about political and legal engagement, and the slides I used are available here. I spoke about our legal action against the government challenging the legality of church closures during the lockdown. It is worth remembering that church meetings were made illegal for the first time in centuries, whilst off-licenses were deemed ‘essential’ and DIY stores were prioritised ahead of churches for opening. Churches could only carry out social care activities, but faced criminal sanction for praying together regardless of precautions taken. A letter before action was sent on behalf of 25 church leaders challenging the legality of this, and this resulted in the government abandoning legal restrictions on churches and promising not to close churches again. Subsequently, churches in Wales have been told they must close for three weeks as part of a new fire-breaker lockdown. Meanwhile, as of the time of writing, Covid deaths in Wales this month have reached a high of 11 per day on 7 and 19 October, otherwise not reaching double digits.
The key points at stake in this engagement were first the independence of Church and state which is enshrined in law and fundamental to our constitution. Churches do not meet by permission of the state. Advice for churches is welcome, criminal sanctions are not. Second, the importance of Christian public worship and ministry which should be viewed as essential. Third, freedom of religion which was seriously inhibited by the closure of churches which also undermined our advocacy of freedom of religion internationally. Fourth, Christians have a duty to God over the state. Ministers should not be forced to halt Christian ministry. There are not exemptions for pandemics or plagues in the Bible. Christians throughout the centuries have risked their lives for fellowship.
I concluded by outlining some lessons learnt and welcoming the increased political engagement that the coronavirus crisis has provoked in church leaders.
Pastoral leadership through the crisis
Finally, Dave Gobbett, Lead Pastor of Highfields Church, Cardiff, spoke on pastoral leadership through the crisis. Dave pointed out the need to lead from principles and conviction, rather than pragmatism. He also spoke of the need to find our voices, and noted that the first on the list of those who will not enter Heaven in Revelation are the cowards (Rev 21:8).
Dave encouraged us to pick our fights and said that we need to encourage people to get back to church physically. New habits of doing church online when convenient have been formed and need to be broken. Dave articulated seven reasons why people are not coming back to church. First those who are shielding, second those who are self-isolating, third those who are no longer allowed to travel the distance, fourth those who are risk averse, fifth those who prefer the ease of watching online, sixth those who altruistically want others to have their place, and seventh those who out of nostalgia don’t want to attend masked church with no singing. I had noted in my session that the ban on singing is guidance and not law.
Dave also spoke of knowing our people, standing with our elders, letting creative people come up with ideas, and trusting our Saviour. In the Q&A he was asked about longer-term pastoral issues in which he mentioned disengagement with church, lack of volunteers, commodifying church, marriages struggling and students struggling. There was also a discussion about whether this could be a time when the Church is being refined so that it stands out more.
More discussions like these are needed
Overall, it was an excellent event and Affinity is to be thanked for organising and facilitating it. It is well worth watching the videos to hear what each speaker had to say in full. I found it very helpful to hear all these different perspectives and to see the speakers challenged. I hope we will see more discussions like this in future.
You can watch the full event below: