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Coronavirus-spreading churches: Bad theology has tragic consequences

Pete Phillips explains why being a Christian does not mean magical exemption from the consequences of a fallen world.

The other day I was asked by a journalist about whether I thought churches were a particular problem for COVID19 infection. I was taken aback by the question because my own assumption was that the church in the UK was doing a fantastic job of going online.

I have been monitoring this process over the last few weeks and despite some rumblings around vicars missing their sanctuaries, the Church as a whole in the UK has been on full compliance with Romans 13 guidance to obey the governing authorities – we, like the rest of the country, are in lockdown, staying at home to save lives, protect the NHS and the vulnerable. Indeed, the Church in the UK recognises the ethical need for that lockdown – the need to flatten the curve of infection and so help the NHS to handle the emergency cases which will arise from our current COVID19 infection rate. In a way, the need to flatten the curve makes us all frontline workers ameliorating the effect of the virus. It’s arguable that the high profile decisions by the major denominations helped to strengthen the Governement’s argument for the lockdown from the beginning and the lack of any major retrenchment from that has helped to keep the lockdown in place.

But this isn’t always the case elsewhere and so you can understand why journalists might think the Church is a problem. Three examples show why this is an issue:

  • In South Korea at the start of the outbreak there a church member, who had a fever but twice refused to be tested, infected 37 people. Reuters (https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-SOUTHKOREA-CLUSTERS/0100B5G33SB/index.html) published a study which showed the woman was in time responsible for hundreds of cases of subsequent infection. The rate of infection was exacerbated by the popularity of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, as well as the kind of events which the woman attended – including a buffet lunch as at a busy hotel. Church events at a busy church include close proximity with many other people, as well as lots of social interaction and conversation which leads to an even greater potential to share infected water droplets.
  • In Washington State, a choir decided to meet just before the official lockdown was put in place in early March. No one was showing any signs or symptoms of COVID19. The meeting went ahead with hand sanitizer at the door, no hugs or handshakes. They sang…But within three weeks 75% of the people there had COVID19 diagnoses, three were hospitalised and two were already dead. Of course, in retrospect it might have been sensible to think that singing was a great way to spread the disease around the room and the more we know about COVID19’s transmissions, hindsight makes us think again that it was a good idea to have this event. (https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-29/coronavirus-choir-outbreak)
  • Perhaps more annoying is the suggestion that God or some holy artefact or a holy place can keep the virus at bay. So, from Russia, you may have seen a news report in which a nun coming out of Church says that it is impossible to catch COVID19 in a holy place – the nun is also a medical doctor! Or in Ukraine, Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra shrine, argued that COVID19 was a sign of our sin and could be fought through devotion in the cave shrine, hugs, prayers and fasting. In fact, almost 100 people at the monastery have now tested positive, with two dead so far. Metropolitan Pavel is now following lockdown restrictions ordered by the Ukrainian Government saying that misunderstood the severity of the illness. (https://www.unian.info/kyiv/10959140-zelensky-almost-100-kyiv-pechersk-lavra-monks-test-positive-for-covid-19.html)

Of course, each of these situations has their own complications to do with testing regimes, early diagnosis and the apparent problems even with social distancing. South Korea shows the problem of an unwilling (perhaps thoughtless) but incredibly socially active patient; Washington shows the problems of asymptomatic spreading of the disease which as only really become more obvious during March after the choir met. But the Kyiv case seems to be a problem with a theology that proposes that the holiness of a sanctuary prevents a communicable disease. It is true that a Christian lifestyle can help us to avoid avoidable disease through avoiding risks and taking care of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). But that’s not the same as assuming a sanctuary space is necessarily virus-free. Although even here we recognise that God is Protector and Healer and as such you can understand some of what these people are thinking (for example, Psalm 91:9-10, even more explicit in Deuteronomy 7:15). Indeed, there are plenty of examples from the United States where churchgoers are continuing to meet because, as one lady said, “I am covered by the blood of Jesus”. Does the blood of Jesus cover us and protect us – like the blood applied to the doorposts of the Hebrews in Egypt which protected them when the Angel of Death appeared? (Exodus 12:7).

Or was that an exceptional protection for an exceptional moment. God did not, for example, provide the same protection for Jews during the Holocaust.

When wandering through Palestine with Jesus, the disciples pointed to the man born blind asking whether it was his sin or his parents that caused the illness. Jesus, of course, said the man was ill to reveal the glory of God (John 9). Or when talking about the Corinthian church’s abuse of the Lord’s Supper, Paul talks of this abuse of holy things being the very reason that some are falling ill (1 Corinthians 11:30).

But God does not protect us magically from the consequences of a fallen world. Those who follow God know that affliction affects us all because we live in a world which suffers because of sin, both personal and corporate sin. In a fallen world, sin, poverty, loneliness, poor mental health are all realities which we ask God to help us with. God can and does heal, often miraculously, often because we pray for healing and he hears. But as Paul lived with poor eyesight and his other affliction, so too we need to be aware that sometimes God in his wisdom does not heal as we expect him to heal. As those who live on a broken, fragile earth, we need to remember that it is only when Jesus returns and brings in a new heaven and a new earth that all suffering and weeping will be gone (Revelation 21:4)! 

Evil and sickness and suffering is a reality that we all need to face. In social isolation, when the dead are dying alone, when the dead are buried without their loves ones present, when care homes are forgotten places of sorrow, when NHS staff are fighting an illness often without adequate protection, when this illness hits the poor, the oppressed, the elderly and infirm more than any other groups, we need to take care of ourselves so that we can provide a barrier of love for others. We stay at home to protect ourselves and others from COVID19 infection.

One day, the lockdown will end. Then we can celebrate. Then we can rejoice that our churches are social places. We will talk together, we will hug together, we will share the peace together.

In the meantime, we meet through screens, in the online Church. We phone our friends and zoom in for work meetings! We may be physically distant but we have no need at all to be socially distant after all. Thank God for tech!

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Pete Phillips is Head of Digital Theology at Premier Christian Media and Research Fellow at Durham University.

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Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.

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