During the quarantine, there has been some discussion about religious freedom and the civil government’s authority to close houses of worship. While churches should guard their freedom to worship jealously, civil authorities have a duty to protect public safety and health, quarantines are a time-tested tool for dealing with epidemics, and the Christian religion itself requires submission to the civil authorities in matters of their proper authority such as this (Romans 13:1ff, cf. 1 Peter 2:11-17, Matthew 22:21). This is the doctrine of the Prayer Book (p. 32): “so rule the hearts of thy servants the President of the United States, the Governor of this State, and all others in authority, that they knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek thy honour and glory; and that we and all the People, duly considering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honour them, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance”. Richard Baxter, the English divine (1615-1691), dealt with the questions of religious freedom and public safety in his Christian Directory, Q 109, “May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day if the magistrate forbid them?” His answer is a model of balance. On the one hand, “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.” On the other hand, “If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them”. If quarantines are imposed on churches without due cause, Christians have a duty as Christians to resist them – for the sake of obedience to God, “according to thy blessed Word and ordinance”; but otherwise Christians have a positive duty as Christians to abide by them, not merely in compliance with coercive power, but freely, “for conscience sake” (Romans 13:5) – and for the same reason, for the sake of obedience to God, and “according to thy blessed Word and ordinance”. The Word of God both mandates and limits our obedience to the state.
Compliance with quarantines has been the church’s historic practice. To give an example, when Milan was struck by plague in 1576-1577, Carlo Borromeo, the great Counter-reformation bishop of Milan, closed the churches for two years and arranged for masses to be celebrated outside so that people could watch from their windows – livestreaming in a non-digital age. (It helped that non-communicating assistance at mass was a norm for Roman Catholics in those days.)
Necessary as the quarantine is for public health, it is also damaging to many small businesses and the huge number of workers who are now jobless. Their loss of livelihood is not a matter of light concern, and I don’t envy the governments that must try to balance the goods of physical and economic public health. As of this writing (Wednesday morning), the Governor of Georgia has allowed certain kinds of businesses to open, and also places of worship. This is not an “all-clear” siren allowing us all to let down our guard. The permission is hedged about with qualifications – observing “strict social distancing protocols”, and “heeding the advice of public health officials”. On-line services are recommended as “good options”, and the “medically fragile and elderly” are to continue sheltering in place “at least through May 13”, when the Public Health Emergency expires. The directive also calls on “Georgians to protect our elderly, [and] limit your direct contact” with them – an important consideration for many in our congregation. It’s a proper reminder of our moral responsibility not to expose others to risks to their health, or to foster a false sense of security. Christians especially need not bring the name of Christ into disrepute by allowing his church, its worship or sacraments, to become the source of disease and death.
On the basis of considerations of this kind, the Bishop of Georgia has declined to authorize the reopening of churches for in-person worship at this time. Though we look forward eagerly to the resumption of public “in-person” worship, given the shortage of testing and contact-tracing, and the risk of asymptomatic transmission, we will instead be developing and making ready safety protocols that incorporate “best practices” specific to our needs, so that we will be ready to resume in-person services when the time comes. On-line services will continue, even when
in-person services resume and are now available on YouTube as well as Facebook.
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