The argument for the opening of churches is not only about the “right to worship”

By Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, the President of the SACBC.

The Easter season, particularly the Triduum — the three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — is the most important period in the Christian calendar. This is because the Easter event is the kernel of the religious character of Christianity. As St Paul put it, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14).

The death and resurrection of Christ became for the believers an enlightening event about the salvific value of his life, activities and teachings. Christian believers appear to have an intuition of this central place of Easter in their faith because even nonactive members are sure to make an appearance in church at this time.

It is for this reason that in 2020 the cancellation of Easter services on account of the Covid-19 pandemic was a big blow for Christians. This is when they have the opportunity to reconnect with their foundation, as it were, and be revived. There is therefore a great sense of joy and jubilation among Christians that this year church doors will be open for the celebration of Easter, even if it is with lockdown restrictions as stipulated in the government gazette.

Although the inability to celebrate Easter with others was the most painful restriction, the continued closure of churches after Easter was also painful because, in essence, the church is a “gathering” from which a sense of belonging and support is obtained and from which an impulse for mission ensues.

While telephone, social media and video conference apps like Zoom and Skype were resorted to for gathering, they could not make up for the physical meeting which is a critical element of being a church. Yet, distraught as they were about the total shutdown of church gatherings, Christians, motivated by the moral injunction to protect life, willingly acceded to the government regulations.

More than any other organisations, the churches, particularly those under the banner of the SA Council of Churches (SACC), have co-operated with the government in efforts to drive down the spread of the virus and, with the progressive easing of restrictions, developed self-monitoring directives to avoid infection. The churches further availed themselves of concrete proposals to deliver the needed social services arising from the conditions of the lockdown.This must be commended, as numerous church organisations played this role even before the pandemic.

When the feeding frenzy by corrupt people around Covid-related services and PPE raised its ugly head, the churches were there to raise the alarm and successfully mobilised against theft of resources and materials meant to combat virus infection and cushion the poor. Yet, as the first year since the Covid-19 lockdown was introduced comes to an end, Christian denominations and other believers feel that their co-operation in combating the spread of the virus is not recognised.

Instead of being seen as valued partners in fighting the virus, they feel that they are being treated as superspreaders by the government, and handed worse restrictions than other sectors. This is in spite of the churches being on record as applying self-regulating measures and with no evidence that they are failing to control the spread of the virus. The only recorded and often quoted incident of the spread of the virus in the context of a church is a Bloemfontein gathering in March 2020 in which a number of people were infected, including ADCP leader Rev Kenneth Meshoe. There appears to be a confusion between funerals and church gatherings as superspreaders of infection. A clarification needs to be made, and the earlier the better.

Funerals, of which many are indeed superspreaders, bring together people from various church, cultural and political backgrounds. Therefore, the church does not have absolute control over such gatherings. Daily visits to the family of the deceased during the week preceding the funeral are not controlled by the church, hence the tradition of big numbers of people congregating, eating and drinking during such events cannot be ruled out.

This gets even less controllable when the person being buried is a prominent figure like a politician, a minister or a king. Contrary to a false association of religious organisations with the spreading of the virus at funerals, the churches, particularly those under the banner of the SACC, do their best to inform about and persuade against behaviours that lead to infection. However, they are often ignored by the family and other mourners. Right now, the sense among church leaders, especially those that attract big numbers, is that the restrictions applied to their gatherings are arbitrary and irrational.

In terms of numbers and duration of gatherings, casinos, restaurants and shebeens enjoy more latitude than churches. Taxis are allowed to carry a full load of passengers. Taking cognisance of such factors, some church leaders are beginning to wonder if there are not anti-church sentiments among those who draft these regulations.

On Tuesday night President Cyril Ramaphosa made his much-anticipated announcement on how the country would move forward through the Easter weekend and the dreaded third wave. He increased the number of people allowed to meet for religious events to 250 indoors and 500 outdoors. While smaller churches could live with the maximum of 100 people which was allowed per service, the mega-churches that have capacity for thousands feel the number is too small and are calling to be allowed to gather half the number of the seating capacity of their buildings.

Given the good record of churches in self-monitoring, there being no evidence of their being superspreaders and that they render essential services that anchor people during these difficult times, an expectation that churches would be allowed to stay open and keep bigger numbers seems reasonable. More people to attend church services would mean spiritually healthier individuals with a potential for a better moral and material contribution to their families and society.

What could increase transmission among churchgoers is the travelling and gathering of people in one place, as is usually the practice at Easter time. Travelling long distances with long exposure and long hours of worship does increase the risk of infection. It would be better therefore for church ministers to travel to communities and do multiple services instead of gathering people from various places at one centre.

There is of course the fear of a third wave, but at this stage it is still at a speculative level. We pray that it will not become a reality, but should indications of it being real become clearer, the government can once more count on the cooperation of churches. The argument for the opening of churches is not only about the “right to worship”, but more about religious people being allowed to be inspired by the effect of their worship, to make their contribution to society and to the world.

Indeed, despite the lockdown, believing people have played their role in alleviating consequences of Covid-19 like hunger, unemployment and stress. Believers have distributed food to hungry people, counselled distressed people, kept some people in employment and called to task those who, with corrupt intentions, were trying to divert Covid-19 related resources. As it has been noted over and over again, the occurrence of Covid-19 and its consequences laid bare a perennial and universal problem of economic inequality, especially in poorer countries. Unemployment has hugely increased. The shortage of Covid-19 vaccines in these countries is well documented, while wealthier European countries are hoarding them.

As Pope Francis and other leaders have stated, at this time in the world, the vaccine against Covid-19 is a common good that should be made available to all and not be hoarded by a privileged few. As we open our churches, it is hoped that we will not just be happy to worship but that we will also add our voice and weight to the call for equitable access to the vaccine, which is a big game-changer in this pandemic.

This article appeared in DailyDispatch 01 April 2021

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