Coronavirus: Closing church buildings
Advising churches to close when we are (in England) legally permitted to worship is a strong, even controversial, line for the Specialist Teams to take.
As a free church movement Baptists have long resisted government control of church gatherings, insisting on gathering to worship despite persecution and threat. We have been strengthened in this resolve of ‘not neglecting to meet together’ (Hebrews 10:25), through the writings of the early churches.
So what is different now? The government still legally allows us to attend worship in our buildings, yet we are suggesting a temporary abstention from doing so. Some, we know will already be doing this, others may need a little more explanation or convincing.
This virus is not itself an experience of persecution as it is contracted by both people of faith and none. Our freedoms to worship and to witness have not been threatened, and indeed they are as important as ever, though they may again require imagination and fresh insight. This we share with and will continue to monitor closely alongside our other ecumenical church partners.
Our freedom must always be held in tension with love. As Christians, we have always had something profound to say about the nature of sacrifice and selflessness. At this time when our society is speaking and relearning the language of laying down their life for their friends, it would be deeply ironic if we put our own need to worship in person before the common good. We are listening to the experiences of church members who work in hospitals and healthcare. In the sacrifice of losing a Sunday gathering, we believe, we join with our communities to ease the strain on the NHS and save the lives of friends and strangers.
More than this, to quote the apostle Paul, we also must not let something that we 'know is good be spoken of as evil' (Romans 14). If our church services continue in our buildings and in person, and this in turn causes the virus to spread, this greatly damages our witness to the gospel of Christ. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.
However, whilst not a matter of persecution, this harrowing disease does discriminate against the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society and risks leaving even the healthiest of people with complex long term side effects. These are the people who have always been at the centre of the teaching and practice of Jesus, and they must now be foremost in the minds of the community of faith. We will continue our work to stay alert to the justice issues that Covid exposes and that Covid is used to cover up.
We know that ceasing to meet together is a sacrifice, and for those who already feel isolated this is a huge ask. We honour you and your love as you preach the gospel in this way.
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.