Let My People Go!
May 4, 2020

Alabama's Governor Kay Ivey loosened the shutdown last week, allowing more businesses to operate and opening the Gulf coast beaches.

I appreciate the complexity of the issues governors face. They must make life-or-death decisions, without the kind of information they need to be certain their decisions are right. Governors throughout the US, and leaders throughout the world, are generally doing their best to weigh public health, economic well-being, the effects of isolation, and many other factors.

Still, I was disappointed Gov. Ivey, and other governors, haven't loosened restrictions on religious gatherings, which in Alabama are still limited to ten or fewer people, and only if they can maintain a six-foot distance between them. Many states maintain similar restrictions.

Let's assume that the virus is as virulent and lethal as the worst-case interpretations of the data suggest.

Why are businesses trusted to maintain distance and sanitation regulations with large crowds, but not churches?

Churches in states that have opened up religious services are voluntarily taking precautions to inhibit the spread of the virus - holding multiple services, discouraging physical contact, maintaining distance within the sanctuary.

Some churches in open-church states have decided not to meet, because of the age of the congregation or because of space restrictions. But it was the choice of the church's leaders, as it should be.

Some suggest churches are unique incubators. We've all seen reports to this effect, but, so far as we know, no systematic study exists. In Alabama, the rationale is along the lines of: "Well, people hug at church."

The experience of Florida counts against this claim. Florida never shut down churches or other religious gatherings. Governor Ron DeSantis expressed the radical opinion that he lacked Constitutional authority to do so.

And, as Gov. DeSantis has been pointing out (with not a little pique in his manner), Florida has not been the disaster zone everyone predicted.

Again, assume the worst. Still, Florida is evidence churches can function responsibly, and even hold public services, without accelerating the spread of the virus.

It's time for other states to follow suit and let the churches open up, begin gathering and worshiping, begin again to conduct the public priestly ministry we all, Christians and non-Christians, need.

I'm more interested in the ecclesial questions than the political ones. Thomas Joseph White has offered some wise counsel to Catholics, but his counsel applies more widely.

One of the painful results of the shutdown is the isolation of COVID patients, and of many patients suffering from other diseases, who are forbidden to have visitors.

White supports the bishops who have deployed selected priests "to minister, where it is possible, to people who are dying from the virus, even at real risk to themselves," provided they do so freely and safely. The bishops who have done this require the priests to live in quarantine until their time of service is over.

Young pastors, priests, or deacons in other churches could volunteer for similar ministry. I suspect some, perhaps many, have.

Regarding closing worship services, White writes, "If legitimate authorities and public health officials ask the Church to engage in a practice of quarantine for a limited time, and for a serious and warranted reason, it is reasonable to try to obey them, while harmonizing their requests with the aims and obligations of the gospel, the practice of charity, and the sacramental life of the Church."

The harmonization won't be the same everywhere: "Montana is not Manhattan." Importantly, White stresses that "the Church’s suspension of public sacramental practice cannot be of indefinite duration." We can't wait until "every risk is eliminated, especially if it becomes increasingly apparent that that time will never arrive."

I would state that more strongly: We can't wait for all risks to be eliminated because the time of no-risk won't ever arrive. If not coronavirus, some other threat will always be on the horizon. We do not live in a risk-free world.

The Lord is using the pandemic, as He uses every circumstance, to bring people closer to Himself. Some guesstimate that online church services have touched thousands who would never attend church. In the UK, where a tiny percentage attend church weekly, as many as a quarter of the population has tuned in to a service during the pandemic.

Yet, there are worrying long-term signals. Peter Selby wonders if the epidemic will be seen as a decisive moment in the Church of England's retreat from the public sphere to the private.

Selby concludes: "The CofE bishops will surely seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an 'essential work' undertaken by 'key workers' will have become a wistful 'BC' [Before Coronavirus] memory. In truth, especially 'AC,' the work is essential and the workers are key, not just for those who happen to opt in but as signs of hope and healing for our communities and our nation."

White's convictions are evident in a tiny turn of phrase: "If legitimate authorities and public health officials ask the Church to engage in a practice of quarantine for a limited time. . . ." White correctly sees the relationship between church and state as a relation of two authorities, at least equal, which govern two peoples.

When it knows its place, the state appeals to the church. It doesn't order the church. Out of charity for neighbors, out of a proper respect for civil authority, the church will often comply. The vast majority of American churches have complied with the pandemic restrictions. But the church's compliance is a response to an appeal, not submission to a superior authority.

The epidemic is an enormous challenge to churches on all sorts of levels. But the challenge becomes even worse, verging on an identity crisis, when we act as if the church is a private organization or an arm of the nation or state.

Moses came to Pharaoh with the demand, Let My people go, that they might sacrifice to Me in the wilderness. My people. Happily, many around the world don't live under a Pharaoh, or anything close. No matter how favorable our political situation, though, we must remember we belong to the Lord, not to the state.

Whatever comes next in the current crisis, whatever crisis is just over the horizon or further in the future, the church will meet it faithfully only if we remember who we are: My people.

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