Op-Ed: Against Public Worship in the Age of Coronavirus

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click to enlarge Op-Ed: Against Public Worship in the Age of Coronavirus
I have taken full advantage of Governor Mike DeWine's shelter at home order. The last few weeks provided me an opportunity to get much-needed rest, to catch up on paperwork, and to ponder our previously unimaginable circumstances posed by the coronavirus.

As a clergywoman without a pulpit, I have relished in not having Sunday duties. I have been mostly quiet on all things spiritual in the public sphere and on social media. Yet, like millions of other people, I have stood mouth agape watching the news of pastors holding worship services and bible studies knowing that medical professionals and scientists advised social distancing—standing at least six feet apart. Some of these "men of God" have even been arrested, as they should have been.

Many of my clergy Facebook friends and their friends decried the "bad theology" espoused by these pastors. Absolutely. As one who possesses two advanced degrees in theology, as well as a law degree, I agree wholeheartedly. The church is rife with "bad theology." Indeed, the church often blooms in the soil of "bad theology." Any theology not rooted in, and manifesting, love and healthy and safe dynamics is "bad theology." Consequently, I wish to discuss what is at stake, theologically and morally, when congregations worship in-person during a pandemic.

Even the greenest of Christians know the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, which derives from the Jewish Torah or Pentateuch (a Greek word)—the first five books of the Bible. "Thou shall not kill" is the sixth commandment. Some interpretations communicate this commandment as "Thou shall not murder."

We know the coronavirus, which is contagious, has the great potential to kill. We also know that a person can carry the virus while being asymptomatic. So, a person can carry the virus unknowingly, transfer it to other people, and some or all of those people may die. That is irrefutable based on medical science.

While I do not know the intricacies, I do know specialists trace the physical location of a viral outbreak. Today, the news is replete with stories of victims of COVID-19 having gathered at churches, funerals, or convalescing, or enduring their end-of-life, in nursing homes. Proximity to the virus, in these cases, proved deadly or at least dangerous to one's health. Similarly, we read stories of closings and subsequent sterilizations at grocery stores, academic spaces, buses, and bus shelters because specialists traced contact to and with someone in these locations who received a positive result to a coronavirus test.

Our state, and others like New York, have received sound leadership based on reliable medical and scientific insights and knowledge from learned experts and professionals. Responsible, bright elected officials have information that we, members of the general public, do not have. Thus, our reliance on their wise counsel.

Clergy, unless they are privy to government debriefings, are members of the general public too. Their "faith," while beautiful and blessed, has its place. Amid a global pandemic, religious leaders ought to be sensible. Holding public congregational worship is not reasonable. On the contrary, it is unwise and potentially deadly, and devoid of the spirit of love.

We know the Coronavirus kills. We know that some states have advised against or prohibited public worship. So, to engage in an activity that authorities have warned against—publicly and repeatedly—qualifies as recklessness.

In the end, where deaths result from willful public worship, the sixth commandment—thou shall not kill—is violated. To claim that the demonstration of one's faith in a public setting is superior to the sixth commandment is a willful, blatant, audacious claim. The level of arrogance is astonishing. To witness the enactment of bad theology is sad, even painful. May pastors cease and desist from public worship immediately.

Christian folk are using a number of doctrinal sayings and biblical passages to justify attending public worship. “I’m covered by the blood of Jesus.” Ok. So, the other Christians who succumb to COVID-19 where not? “Scripture says, ‘Where two or three of gathering there God is in the midst.” Does God require a quorum? No, Ma’am. That passage from Matthew 18:20 is merely an encouragement of communal worship, not a constraint on the presence of God.

For people of faith, God is with us individually and collectively. Often, it is said that the church is not an edifice, but the people. The people of God can and should worship within their homes during the pandemic. Private prayer and worship is a practice that ought not be foreign. Were people not praying in their houses all along?

The church still has the capacity for outreach in the age of technology. Granted, the elderly and the technologically disadvantaged may not be privy. Hopefully, societal forces will bridge these tech gaps in short order.

Bad theology bred by religiosity, fundamentalism, and religious psychosis are deathly. Always has been and always will be. Religiosity, fundamentalism, and religious psychosis have led to the deaths of innocent virgins, cult members, animals sacrificed, and countless relationships. What willful pastors and churchgoers are doing in the age of Coronavirus is more egregious than murderous acts of ages ago. Why? Because in the twenty-first century, we live in what should be a rational age.

Whether we live in a rational age, however, is questionable. What is not doubtful is we live in a scientific age. Vast portions of the scientific data are clear, precise, and emerging daily. At present, science dictates that we shelter at home, and that we practice social distancing when we must venture into public spaces, that we thoughtfully and methodically wear gloves and masks.

In death, the only consolation for people of faith is found in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.”

Public congregation worship in the age of Coronavirus is simply far too dangerous.
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