Each week, I report the news in the world of religion in America. Normally, I select four or five stories: deaths or installations, court cases and criminal charges, books, movies, and music, celebrities and politicians. But this week there is only one story: religion in a time of pandemic.
Across the nation, governors have shut down schools, businesses, parks, streets, stadiums, and churches. Yes, churches. In an appeal to public safety, all of these operations have complied: the NBA and major league baseball, public and private schools, federal and state parks, and business large and small. Restaurants are open more carry-out only. Even fishing in remote areas has been banned in some places.
There is grumbling, of course, as people fret about revenue and obligations. But almost all have complied, including most churches. But not all. I have reported on some of these each week. Today, the story comes from Los Angeles.
Seven hundred people lined up to receive communion at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in greater Los Angeles this past Sunday. That is almost double the normal number for such a service, the pastor said. The church adhered to all pandemic protocols: wiping down the church frequently, only ten persons allowed in the church at any one time, people waiting outside in line stood ten feet apart many wearing masks and gloves.
This episode and all of what I call the Sabbath Shutdown of 2020 raises multiple questions, some legal, some theological, some spiritual.
For instance, is the shutting down of churches a freedom of religion issue? A few protesters around the country think so and have made it known. Some have continued to hold services. Court cases were launched in Houston and in Louisville, challenging the legitimacy of public officials who told churches to quit holding public services of worship.
Can public officials do this? It is not the first time it has been done; check the record of 1918 in the great world-wide flu pandemic. What will the federal courts say about this? Does public safety take priority over public worship? It is a vexing question, even for those religious groups that want to be good citizens and participate in the healing of the nation.
I have tended to side with the governors. These mandates target religion, they do not discriminate against religion. In that sense, it is like a state rule that all buildings (including churches) be equipped with sprinkler systems and panic doors—these are universal guidelines and do not create special conditions for churches.
But it does raise the questions: under what circumstances can civil authorities close a church? Is it limited to, say, war and health? Or are there other justifications, like danger to life and limb, or inciting rebellion, or engaging in political activity? These are important questions that are raised in such a time.
There is another series of questions that this on-going news story raises: can the ordinances or sacraments of the faith be administered in absentia or at a distance? Does confession require a priest? Does communion require the common cup? Does baptism require personal attendance?
Theologians, bishops, rabbis, and imams have engaged in this conversation. Pope Francis told his Roman Catholic people to confess to God during these pandemic times when priestly confession is not possible; but it seems odd that confession itself could not fit neatly into the Zoom technology (especially since the confessing person is not suppose to actually see the priest during confession anyway). In Islam, the great mosque at Mecca is closed to the traveling pilgrim, thus making impossible one of the five basic practices of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But the issues of eucharist and baptism in Christianity are more complicated. Many Christians think baptism (of any sort—sprinkling, pouring, or immersing) is essential to salvation; how then can a person be saved or redeemed or their sins washed away if there is no baptism, no water?
Asking this question reminds me of the story of the Ethiopian official, told in “The Acts of the Apostles”, in the New Testament. Philip the deacon tells him about Jesus and baptism; and the Ethiopian sees a pool of water and asks, “What keeps me from being baptized?” The good deacon says, “Nothing, as long as you believe in Christ.” But today, he would have to add, “Well, something, namely, the virus and the public order to stay away.” But even there, a lone minister taking a single convert to the ocean or a pool or a font should suffice for the sacrament.
These are theological, ecclesial questions. There is a third set of questions, and these are both public and private: are religious practices and services essential services? Governors have produced a list of these essential services allowed to remain open during this pandemic: food production and distribution, mail and delivery services, medical services and some governmental offices, like law enforcement, fire protection, and revenue collection. Others, like banking and schooling, have had to move totally online.
But are religious practices in this category: are they essential? And to whom? And for what purposes? Anxiety, stress, and mental illness are greatly impacted by the great Sabbath Shutdown; can prayer, music, and communion help strengthen people to manage themselves during these difficult days?
Many counselors and mental health professionals have noted serious up-tick in demand for their services—and they have continued in both on-line and in-person therapy. Are worship services, singing and praying events, preaching, teaching, and testifying essential to the well-being of communities and families?
These are the questions we are asking and answering, sometimes in courtrooms, sometimes in the streets, sometimes on Facebook. They constitute the only story of religion this week; it continues from week to week and will so for weeks and months to come.
That is the news from The Meetinghouse this week and will be so for weeks to come!