Though shalt not go to church

A cautionary tale

Despite the huge ramifications of her decisions, only so much is publicly known about “patient 31”. We do not know her real name or many details of her life before February this year. Nor despite extensive investigations by public health authorities, do we know how she contracted the covid-19 virus.

However, we do know she is a 61-year-old woman and lives in Daegu, a South Korean city of two and a half million people. We know that on Feb 6th, she was involved in a car accident that led to her being hospitalised and that whilst she was there, she developed a fever. We also know that on Feb 17th, she tested positive for Covid-19, making her the Republic of Korea’s 31st confirmed case of the virus.

Most crucially, we know she was a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and that she attended the church’s services on February 9th and 16th, the latter time despite the fact her fever had already began presenting itself. Finally, we know that this was a decision that would have catastrophic consequences.

As her designation implies, coronavirus had been present in Korea before “patient 31”. However, most sufferers had either travelled to Wuhan and been in direct contact with someone who had. It was in short, thanks to a world-class public health infrastructure, broadly contained.

Then “patient 31” brought it into contact with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. It spread first amongst “patient 31’s” congregation, then amongst Shincheonji members across Korea, and then to members of the general public they had contact with. As of March 20th, 5,000 coronavirus infections had been traced back to “patient 31” and the Shincheonji Church, more than half the total number reported in Korea.

There are particular factors which made Shincheonji an effective vector for spreading the virus. Its congregations are unusually large and during services they sit close together on the floor. It is also a secretive organisation that is often branded a cult in part because it teaches that the Bible is full of secret metaphors which only be interpreted by its founder, a self-proclaimed messiah named Lee Man-Hee. Due to its suspicion of outsiders, it initially obstructed the health authorities’ efforts to trace and isolate potentially infected people.

That said, virtually all religious worship involves bringing people from different households into close proximity. So, it is to my surprise that I see some Christians agitating to physically congregate despite the risk of creating many more “patient 31s”.

Leading us into temptation

An Ohio churchgoer recently earned herself worldwide internet notoriety by telling a TV reporter on the way out of a service, that she was not worried about catching or passing on the virus because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”. This might seem lurid but of the 39 states in the US to have implemented ‘stay at home’ orders, 12 specifically exempt religious gatherings.

Nor is this a purely American phenomenon. In the Philippines, despite official disapproval from the Government and the Catholic Church: “Some…penitents flagellated themselves and prayed outside closed churches…to commemorate the death of Jesus on Good Friday.”

Even here in the UK, where churches have almost uniformly conformed to, or even gone beyond, official advice to physically distance, there are still voices calling for a more relaxed approach. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, used a recent opinion piece for the Telegraph to argue that church closures were a mistake because in difficult times “we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith”. He emphasises the need for any gatherings to be social distanced – but nonetheless argues for churches to opened, and asks rhetorically, why this would be ‘any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?’

I submit these positions rest on a set of three misconceptions:

1. There is no religious immunity from this virus

Seeking exemptions from lockdowns for religious gatherings makes little sense, because, bluntly, viruses do not comprehend, much less respect, sacred spaces.

Any Christian tempted to imagine that what happened to the Shincheonji church was God enacting his wrath on a heretical cult – or at least a sign they did not enjoy his protection – and that, therefore, it could never happen to a more mainstream Christian church is ignoring one very basic fact: something remarkably similar has already happened to a mainstream church.  

In February, a group of about 2,500 worshipers from around the world gathered for an annual prayer meeting at an evangelical church in the French town of Mulhouse. A regional public health official likened what happened next to an “atomic bomb explosion”.

One of the worshipers, must have been carrying covid-19. Within days of it finishing, dozens of attendees began displaying flu like symptoms. And from there it kept spreading. For example, a nurse who had been to Mulhouse carried it into a hospital, where 250 patients and staff became infected.

This one prayer meeting has now been linked to thousands of infections, hundreds of deaths and disease clusters on three continents.

That faith is not an effective anti-viral should not surprise us. God offers an assurance of salvation, yes. But this is spiritual, not physical.

Believers have been wrestling with the implications of this fact since at least 1755. In that year, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Lisbon on the morning of All Saints Day. The result was that when every church in the city collapsed or was destroyed by fires, they were packed with worshipers. So not only were the faithful not spared but they bore the brunt of the tragedy.

In fact, as two millennia of martyrs attest to: having faith not only does not reliably repel physical danger but can actually attract it!

I would, however, be remiss not to point out an important distinction between what happened in Mulhouse and in Daegu. As far as I can see, the French church did nothing wrong. At the time their gathering took place there was no guidance in place discouraging such events or advising physical distancing.

However, as we have seen, there remain Christians not only arguing for the right to continue holding services, but actually doing so. This apparently has already led to tragedy. Three members of an Arkansas church, including a 91 year old greeter who had served the church for decades, died after a childrens’ service went ahead despite the state’s advice to avoid gatherings.

Health officials in the Californian city of Sacremento linked 71 infections to a megachurch, where some members appear to have continued to meet informally after the shutdown. There is also the case of Bishop Gerald Glenn, who died of coronavirus last week after having vowed to continue holding services “unless I’m in jail or hospital”.

2. Closing churches does not mean the Church is out of action

Part of what make these deaths so tragic is that they are unnecessary. Gathering for worship is of course a hugely important part of Christian life. However, it is hardly of overriding importance.

In an article for Christianity Today on celebrating Easter at a time when churches are closed, Rev. Tish Harrison Warren reflects that:

“the solid fact remains that Christians do not make Easter through our worship…Jesus rose from the dead, and even if it were never acknowledged en masse, it would remain the fixed point around which time itself turns.”

What goes for Easter, goes for any Sunday. If, for reasons beyond our control, we cannot attend church for a few weeks or months, we do not cease to be Christians. We have never held those with serious illnesses to this standard and I see no reason why, in the context of coronavirus, we should be holding the broad mass of churchgoers to it now.

This is even more the case given that our ability to gather together without physically being in the same space is greater than ever before. Services can be livestreamed; study groups can meet via video calls, and messaging apps can broadcast prayer requests far more widely than a preacher in a pulpit. Clearly these options are not open to everyone – and even the most tech literate are unlikely to find virtual church a perfect substitute for the experience of an in-person service – but as a stopgap measure they substantially mitigate the impact of closures for many.

Of course, churches do more than hold services: they are also vital pillars of the community. But here too there are grounds for optimism. Bishop Nazir-Ali’s accusation that the church has withdrawn its support in the nation’s time of need because its premises are closed to the public is wide of the mark. Not only have churches made replicating their Sunday services online the norm, they have continued to be a huge source of charitable and pastoral support: parish priests have become temporary hospital chaplains, church buildings have become mask factories and congregations have taken on a central role in providing mutual aid.

It is a truism that a church is not just a building, but the lockdown has proven it afresh.

3. Love our neighbours

There is, however, an even more basic principle at stake. As has been reiterated many times by now: maintaining physical distance is not only that it prevents you catching the virus, but that it prevents you passing it on to anyone else. The practice combines concern for yourself with concern for others. For example, had Patient 31 demonstrated it, then she would have shielded literally thousands of people from harm. It is a way to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, which is after all one of the two commands Jesus declared the greatest.

This is why I take issue with Bishop Nazir-Ali equating the risks of going to church with the risk of going to the supermarket or taking the Tube to argue for opening churches. Not only does it ignore the fact that, both those activities are currently so dangerous that TfL and supermarket staff are dropping dead; it also, fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

Not only does it ignore the fact that both these activities are currently so dangerous that people who work on the Tube and in supermarkets are dropping dead, it also fails to grapple with physical distancing being a way to love our neighbours.

It is not something in which Christians should be aiming merely to match prevailing standards. We must instead seek to be exemplary physical distancers.

After all, Jesus spent much of his earthly mission curing disease; if we are cavalier about spreading it, we are directly contradicting the example he set for us.

Our faith demands that we never risk the lives of our neighbours for the sake of our worship. Following regulations designed to protect the health of the population is not the same as capitulating to an oppressive regime trying to supress our faith. Rather, it is modelling God’s love to those around us.

Correction

When I first published this post, it stated that the Greers Ferry Church is Arkansas had met in contravention of social distancing guidelines. In fact, the virus spread at a service prior to the state’s stay at home order being instituted. Apologises to everyone connected with that church.

Notes on sources

I have mostly acknowledged the writing I have drawn on via hyperlinks in the main text of this post. However, I wanted to acknowledge the particular debt I owe to Reuter’s reporting on the Daegu outbreak and ‘How a prayer meeting at a French megachurch may have led to scores of coronavirus deaths’ by James McAuley for the Washington Post.