To Close or not to Close

I’ve returned from tonight's prayer meeting. It was better attended than most weeks. There, we prayed for the nation, the churches, our own fellowship and our older, vulnerable members. Whilst we prayed, a well-meaning clergyman commented on our Facebook page, urging us to review our decision not to formally shut.

I’ll be honest, I’ve lost sleep about staying open. By closing, we may help prevent the spread of illness. This is Her Majesty’s Government’s advice; we ought to obey those in authority and surely we would want to preserve members of our congregation, as well as safeguard precious resources. I share the following thoughts.

It is currently advice only. Should an Act of Parliament be passed prohibiting religious assemblies, it may be a different matter. I took a funeral this afternoon- should I have cancelled it? For how long are we asked to suspend public worship? I envisage three months, but it could be 2-3 times that long. As a pastor, I’m just not comfortable with doing that.

We therefore leave it the individual to decide, though this may change in the coming days and weeks. Older folk and the sick should consider not attending worship. But then, they always have made this decision, and always will do. I prefer this to be their choice. Some people I know might be saved from a virus by isolation whilst dying of loneliness in their front rooms. For some, sharing worship on a Sunday is a lifeline in more ways than one.

I note that the shops continue to be open. Therein, one is exposed to a far greater range of people. We are not asked to avoid these gatherings, even though there may be hundreds of people inside the store compared to only a few dozen at church. Ah, you say, but food is essential. Aye, methinks, and so is Christian fellowship to the believer.

Furthermore, I’m not entirely comfortable with Ministers of the Crown instructing us in worship. So far, it’s benevolent and well-intentioned. I’ve tried finding the actual advice myself, but cannot. I’m having to rely on various denominations’ relaying thereof. The Congregational Federation reports that

The guidelines say that gatherings of 10 or less are acceptable …This means churches can open as usual on Sunday or any other time in the week but not gather for worship.

So groups of ten may gather for private prayer but one cannot pray out loud? One cannot read a Bible aloud? One cannot preach? In the 1660s we had a government that prevented nonconformists from worshipping outside the Church of England. Within services, it regulated what was said, what was prayed, by whom, and who preached. Sure, the comparison is crude- today’s government is trying to be helpful and contain an illness. Yet being a follower of seventeenth-century affairs, I cannot but draw parallels. Although our little chapel was not then built, I have seen records of soldiers marching past where we now worship to arrest nonconformists up Martin Top Lane.

So what are the alternatives? I’ve seen pastors filming themselves at their desks offering Bible Studies. This is great for millennials- comfortable worship from home staring into a screen. Some people, however, do not have this technology, the knowledge to use it nor the inclination to learn. Who is going to cater for them?

Some have suggested we should go back to ‘family worship’: the pious parent and pater familias opening up the old family Bible and instructing his heirs and spouse in godly living. It sounds great, but who will lead worship for the widow? The single man? The only Christian in the house?

Are you worried about the virus? Are you concerned about those you live with? Please stay at home. Do you wish to comply with a benevolent government’s advice? Please stay at home. Are you able to read the Bible for yourself and worship God in private? Please stay at home. As pastor, I will support you all the way, but I will not make that decision for you.

I suspect I’ll be criticised whatever I do. So help me God.

 Image by Наркологическая Клиника from Pixabay 

Postscript: In light of the government's strongest advice yet, I emailed regulars urging them to stay at home. 21/3/20, though I attended the chapel to worship.

The chapel did close in compliance with the law, opening as soon as it could, in July.