Looking at historical instances of mass-closure of churches, one thing is clear: it was taken very much more seriously by our brethren in the past.
Pandemic plagues have been stock-in-trade for the churches since at least the time of Justinian, when Christians were noted, even by their enemies, for keeping their churches open and visiting even the pagan sick, despite the risks being all too clear. Luther made allowances for pastors fleeing plague, but assumed the majority would, and should, stay to minister the word to sick and well alike. John Calvin is said to have skirted round Geneva city council’s injunction that he was too valuable to put at risk by visiting the sick – and he continued to preach throughout the week. Presumably, congregations continued to listen. Samuel Pepys similarly records that many churches stayed open in London in the Great Plague year, even though the fact that the more self-interested ministers fled to the country shows they were under no illusions about the risk of contagion.
The last time all churches were closed in England was for six years in the reign of King John, from 1208. This interdict was essentially a power struggle between the Pope and the king, in which (although records are contradictory) the former forbade all services except baptism and last rites (church burial being barred). The king responded by confiscating church goods – though for the most part no secular legal sanctions were applied to priests themselves, as he respected their “benefit of clergy,” that is being accountable only to church courts.
The point is, though, that the interdict was intended to turn the people, deprived of spiritual comfort, against the temporal ruler. It would not have been imposed if the peasants were happy to resort to Druid stone circles or stay in bed, as some modern people would have you believe. The clergy obeyed it because of the spiritual authority of the Pope, and the king fought against it because it hurt the people badly, and consequently his own position.
The Reformation saw battles over non-conformity from the time of the Tudors, both Catholics and Puritans who held their own services being sanctioned by harsh laws. My own Baptist church experienced these sanctions in the wake of the Restoration of Charles II. Our original chapel was hidden in woodland on the county boundary against such persecutory eventualities – ironically, it has now been closed until further notice because COVID restrictions have hit the funds of the National Trust, who administer its access.
Here’s some supporting evidence for those times from Wikipedia:
This enactment was reinforced in 1664 by a statute called ‘the Conventicle Act,’ which rendered illegal any gathering in a private house for religious worship attended by a number exceeding by five the regular members of the household, under penalty of fine, imprisonment, or transportation. A second version of this Act deprived these outed ministers of the right of trial by jury, and empowered any justice of the peace to convict them on the oath of a single informer, who was to be rewarded with a third of all fines levied. Large numbers of nonconformists were put in jail.
Some familiar stuff there – limitations on numbers meeting, large fines, the encouragement to denouncements. In some cases local officials had the power to fine summarily without proper trial – that too has become a commonplace in the last year, in at least one case involving the pastor of a Baptist church meeting against state regulations.
Now, the thing to note here is that this trouble could all have been avoided by the worshippers simply by going to the parish church, which remained open. But the importance of meeting together to worship in the way the Bible was held to prescribe was such a priority for believers that they risked even death to continue:
Bishop Burnet, in his History of his own Time, admiringly describes how they resolutely declined to obey the law, and openly and fearlessly continued their prohibited meetings. They would hold them in the street before the closed doors of their meeting-houses, when these were shut by order. The children, who might not be arrested because of their youth, would also hold conventicles in the street in the absence of their parents in jail, suffering patiently the jeers and cuffs of magistrates and unsympathetic onlookers.
Wow – the children willingly suffered that, even though nobody in those days had provided child-appropriate facilities for them! In Scotland, where penalties against Presbyterian “conventicles” escalated to the point where it was forbidden to provide denounced people with food or drink, and even death without trial was instituted for mere attendance, these made no difference:
The bulk of the religious population in the south and south-west districts continued to attend the conventicles, which were arranged and conducted by the outed ministers… During the years of persecution culminating in the ‘Killing Times,’ it is calculated that some 18,000 people suffered in one way or another for attending these conventicles.**
Now, the pros and cons of churches being closed during COVID are now being discussed, with some rancour. BioLogos, for example, keeps sending me circulars condemning those divisive Christians who deny the science and endanger lives by continuing to meet. John MacArthur’s large church has nevertheless met weekly without any disasters. Meanwhile, regular readers will be aware of how shaky some of the science is – and particularly that on the risks of asymptomatic spread, the key factor in quarantining the entire population. But what seems to me to be more significant is how things were handled by the churches at the very beginning of lockdown, before much scientific, sociological or theological reflection, when governments were often pre-empted by church leaders in closing down services, and there was very little objection from church members.
That, to me, shows that along the way we have lost the tradition’s (and Scripture’s) core assumption that Christians must, as a holy obligation, meet weekly to worship the Lord, administer the sacrament, and hear the word. The Anglican bishops immediately forbade all use of church buildings, before any provision for “virtual” services. But the other denominations all followed suit, my own Baptist Union spending the last year interpreting government regulations in, apparently, the most cautious way possible: even now, though “COVID safe” services have been permitted throughout this lockdown, they advise against it.
Why is this? It’s a mind-set that clearly pre-dates the epidemic, and reflects a casual approach to Sunday worship that, I confess, I have tended to share. The loss of youth to Sunday sports and shop-work has led us to shrug and look for other times for them to gather, rather than challenge parents and kids alike on their spiritual priorities. I’m certain the Sunday trading laws, too, have weakened the role of communal worship, as many predicted: as an on-call doctor I used to be one of the few unable to attend church some weeks, but now half the jobs in the workforce require Sunday working. Once, Christians would have subordinated career choices to their church commitments – that would now appear fanatical.
We now have a “bad weather” policy that dictates how the pastor will promulgate a decision to cancel services if there’s a hurricane or blizzard. It seems fine – until you view it from the mindset that those who might be able and willing to struggle to church have the inalienable right, under God, to do so even if the pastor is snowed in. That, after all, is precisely how C. H. Spurgeon came to be at a Primitive Methodist “conventicle,” where an ignorant layman had to preach because of the snow, and Spurgeon was converted. If that church had had a proper health and safety protocol, there would have been no Metropolitan Tabernacle.
I’ve no doubt that, because church leaders from the outset did not instinctively ask, “What measures and protests will it take to keep the churches open?” they were immediately infected by the ungodly fear deliberately engendered by “the authorities.” This fear apparently, like the virus itself, originated in the Chinese Communist Party via the WHO, not in any biblical principle. Behind that unthinking compliance lay the habit we have gained, from a century and a half of real democracy, of assuming that governments are always to be obeyed – a position far from the biblical one of carefully weighing the just claims of the state against the greater claims of God.
Additionally, the immediate capitulation of the churches reveals the idolatrous spread of scientism, in which the claims of “science” (unthinkingly applied to “government-appointed scientists”) were simply unquestioned. Those of us with medical training and hence scientific doubts were often regarded as dangerous heretics in our churches.
And so it seems that denominational leaders assumed that many people would die if they went to church, and so they must not be allowed to do so. This bespeaks both an unholy fear of death, and an authoritarian spirit dictating what risks adult Christians should be permitted. In the Congregationalist polity of Baptists, for example, the members choose us leaders to feed and care for the flock – not to order their lives. But we’re increasingly used to, and happy with, centrally-organised top-down management of our affairs.
The argument soon moved beyond self-preservation and became (as it did at national level) that this unique virus could be spread by the healthy, so that my going to church might kill both my fellow worshipper, and his neighbours outside the church. A little thought will show that, at least, this argument should be tested against the practice of our forebears, who well knew that, having visited a dying plague victim, one might carry the pestilence to church with you the next Sunday. No doubt it happened sometimes. But they still met to heal their souls and intercede for the community (who attended in greater numbers simply because of the closeness of death – a unique evangelistic opportunity), and they still visited the sick.
A little more thought shows that even when it is direct persecution that closes churches, meeting illegally poses a risk to others as well as oneself. This is implicit in the fines and imprisonments meted out to Nonconformists at the Restoration, which would destroy the livelihood of the whole family, including servants with no opinion on the faith, and not just the religious breadwinner.
In Scotland, at least,
…masters [were] made responsible for their servants, landlords for their tenants, magistrates for the citizens of the burghs over which they presided. It was forbidden to supply denounced persons with meat or drink, or to harbour or have intercourse of any kind with them.
Tell me, what is the moral difference between running the small risk of infecting a neighbour because of attending church during an epidemic, and risking their certain exile to the Gulags because you went to the underground church meetings? We used to read, in Pastor Wurmbrandt’s books, of fathers told to renounce their faith or see their child battered to death: it was portrayed as a test of their loyalty to Christ, not of their love for their son. I think Peter Hitchens is right to say that if you wondered how far you would resist a totalitarian government before last year, you now know.
The churches have not given much reason to hope they would be any less submissive should services without state supervision be deemed anti-social purveyors of hate-speech. If it’s wrong for your religion to put others at risk for infections, then it must be wrong to do so for any other reason. And yet Mary and Joseph, to preserve the life of the Christ, condemned all the children of Bethlehem to death at Herod’s hands. Peter could have stayed in prison and sacrificed his own life rather than go with the angel, join a prayer meeting, and condemn his guards to execution by a successor of Herod. We must obey God, rather than men. The assembly of the redeemed is an eternal priority.
I’ve not heard anyone point out that when King Solomon dedicated the Jerusalem temple as the place where the nation could gather to plead with God, he specifically included epidemics within its functions:
“If there is a famine in the land, if there is a plague, if there is blight or mildew, if there is locust or grasshopper, if their enemies besiege them in the land of their cities, whatever plague or whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer or plea is made by anyone or by all Your people Israel, each knowing his own affliction and his own pain, and spreading his hands toward this house, then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know—for You alone know the hearts of the sons of mankind— so that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the land which You have given to our fathers.” (2 Chron 6:28-9)
Although the church building is not the temple, the people of God is still the assembly. Maybe we would have been more worthily employed in corporate prayer for national forgiveness over the past year, rather than feeding our irrational paranoia listening to the daily press briefings at home. Maybe it’s time to judge ourselves.