Why are shops reopening while churches remain closed?

I am copying only part of an interesting article from the Catholic Herald (for size). It’s about the situation in the UK but also applies outside the UK I think, in terms of arguments for and against churches opening.

Feel free to check out the whole thing, but you need to subscribe to the site in order to read it (hence why I copied the most interesting parts, in my view, here). To clarify, I’m not ‘stealing it’ as subscription is free and gives you four free articles to read per month. If you want more, then you have to pay.

Dr Eli Perencevich, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, who co-authored an article on the need to suspend religious gatherings during the pandemic, offers us some explanation for why church reopenings are being left until the third and final stage of deconfinement: “churches are just a unique situation, where they’re indoors and people sit right next to each other for extended periods and the old and young are together”. For Dr Perencevich, it is this “intergenerational mixing that makes it a particularly high-risk situation.” This is because infected children, who are often asymptomatic carriers, “can spread the virus and have close contact with older churchgoers, who then would catch the virus and have really high morbidity and mortality.” He adds, sympathetically, that his own diocese justified extending its church closures on the grounds that its priests typically fall into this older, higher-risk demographic.

The other acute transmission risks he cites surround church practices: receiving Communion, collecting the offertory, singing together, shaking hands at the sign of peace and dipping hands into holy water fonts. Cardinal Vincent Nichols has recently described how, through “a routine of supervision, a routine of social distancing, a routine of cleansing”, churches could potentially reopen for personal prayer whilst suspending these higher-risk practices. Dr Perencevich agrees that this could present a “far lower risk” than regular church services but, even here, he advises a policy of churchgoers wearing face visors or masks to reduce transmission, given the poor ventilation typical of churches. He also adds that such limited access to churches would still not entirely resolve the problem of the old and young mixing in the same space for extended periods, an issue he does not think applies so readily to the DIY stores and golf courses that have already begun to reopen.

Continued

One of his colleagues and co-authors, Dr Heather Reisinger, a medical anthropologist, points out another potential problem during our discussion of “soft reopenings”. For her, places of worship are marked by particularly close social interactions and “ritualised” practices. The idea, then, of people meeting the same members of their parish community and no longer hugging and greeting them or, indeed, no longer touching or kissing the same religious statues or items, seems unlikely to come about through a simple change in official policy. Dr Reisinger thinks that the level of monitoring and cleaning required will therefore present formidable public health challenges to churches, since “going into a space with very close interactions and trying to get your mind to think differently is just very hard”.

Professor David Paton, an economist at the University of Nottingham, suggests to us that there is a danger, however, of churches finding their spiritual needs completely side-lined with “over the top” restrictions if they are too acquiescent in the reopening debate, especially when other interest groups are lobbying for their own cause. “It makes absolutely no sense that shops are going to be open from June 1 and churches won’t be open,” he says. “Perhaps they’ve not lobbied effectively enough to get things opened a bit earlier, but it seems an awfully long time to wait given that other areas of the economy are opening up.” Professor Paton thinks churches should, therefore, start lobbying harder for the reintroduction of specific activities: “confessions, small weddings, small scale services, perhaps mid-week, and, the simplest of all, being open for private prayer, as happened immediately before the lockdown.”

However, churches asserting their rights more forcefully in the public sphere will always be met with some pushback. Michal Kravel-Tovi and Esra Özyürek of the London School of Economics have written that “religious communities are all-too-easily identified and demonized by vast secular and liberal publics for displaying a compromised citizenship, and for favouring communal doctrines and authorities over the dictates of the state.” They concluded that this anxiety can suppress the “question of how and why—or indeed, whether—public health concerns should be prioritized over other considerations, including the mental wellbeing and religious needs of believers”.

"However, churches asserting their rights more forcefully in the public sphere will always be met with some pushback. Michal Kravel-Tovi and Esra Özyürek of the London School of Economics have written that “religious communities are all-too-easily identified and demonized by vast secular and liberal publics for displaying a compromised citizenship, and for favouring communal doctrines and authorities over the dictates of the state.” They concluded that this anxiety can suppress the “question of how and why—or indeed, whether—public health concerns should be prioritized over other considerations, including the mental wellbeing and religious needs of believers”

I agree with this. We know why a church service is different environment to a supermarket and why that presents more of a risk of transmission. That’s confirmed by science. The idea that God expects us to ignore that at the peril of the vulnerable makes an already hostile secular world regard God even more negatively. This is a time where we could be showing the face of a merciful God by caring about those vulnerable as best we can.

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We should all be concerned especially for our priests and bishops that are most vulnerable. I’m open to keeping Mass for the general population on hold until our youngest priests can be distributed to offer Mass. This will probably mean Mass only once a month at best …for most.

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We need to shop to eat. We can and do and will pray wherever we are and God will feed us wherever we are. In peace and safety and respecting the needs of others and their vulnerability.

A recent “Tweet” I came across on this very topic gives food for thought!

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I don’t think the prelates have ever said they or the Church were ‘non-essential.’ But I think they correctly said that the charitable behavior in a pandemic was to protect people by refraining from gathering.

The comparison to the shops is a little apples to oranges. I would agree that if theatres were opening, then churches should as well. It’s a more similar seating proximity and time exposure.

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