As a bishop in the United Methodist Church, I guide the responses of 400 churches in four Northwest states to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consistent with government and health advice, on March 13, these churches postponed in-person worship to avoid spreading the virus through congregational singing, “passing the peace” handshakes and hugs.
Our churches across Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho have done an amazing job adapting their ministries as this health crisis has worn on – everything from drive-up food pantries to outdoor, online and socially distanced worship. Pastors have even delivered printed sermons across rural areas where we serve.
Now, just as an alarming spike in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths sweep the nation, faith communities are eager to gather to pray, sing, eat and laugh, to light a candle or follow a star and listen for angel voices or the voice of God.
Speaking as a Christian leader to the 65% of Americans who identify as Christian, my answer is simply, NO. Christians and Christian Churches should not gather during this pandemic – even though the U.S. Supreme Court essentially just gave churches the green light to do so.
Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s responsible or moral. Some religious leaders justify gathering for worship, saying, “it is our constitutional right” or “we are just following the governor’s guidelines.” Loose government regulation may give faith communities legal permission to meet, but this does not relieve churches from their moral responsibility. If it is not safe for people to gather in a restaurant or a bar or a movie theater, it is not safe for people to gather in church. Churches don’t get a pass on moral responsibility.
The United Methodist branch of the Christian church teaches that knowledge and faith are wedded together. From the knowledge side, we know that science-based interventions are effective against deadly disease. On the faith side, we hold a heart-felt conviction that each of us must make life choices that care for our neighbors as well as ourselves. Jesus teaches us that it is each person’s job to love God and our neighbors as ourselves with our whole lives. In the pandemic, we model and encourage wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and postponing gathered worship as acts of God’s love toward our neighbors so that we might save lives.
Jesus taught that he came so that people may live and enjoy life to the full. (John 10:10). There is no path through the crisis that will eliminate suffering and death. Social distancing poses mental health risks. Social gathering exposes people to infection and possible death. All of us should reach out to people who suffer from anxiety and isolation during the pandemic, but not at the risk of more infection and death.
People are not simply victims of the virus. We are also powerful actors. We can protect health professionals, slow the virus down and save lives by wearing face masks, keeping social distance, washing our hands and give up gathering with other people – yes, even worship. Even during Advent.
By the grace of God, and through the everyday miracles of science, social cooperation and sacrificial love of neighbor, we know that help is on the way. Christians can share tidings of comfort and joy this season, even if we cannot gather for worship. We must make these sacrifices for a season. Not forever, but as long as necessary.
Elaine JW Stanovsky, based in Des Moines, Washington, serves as Bishop of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, which includes more than 400 churches across Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho. She has served as Bishop of this episcopal area since 2016. Learn more at greaternw.org.
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