Photo by Getty / George W Johnson
Artillery Row

Don’t shut our churches again

The Church is the only place we can find true deliverance from Covid

There is a principle which runs through the Christian understanding of all human affairs. It is this: when we try to be God, we make ourselves less than human; but when we are willing to admit we are not, and worship God alone, then we discover what true humanity is all about.  We were made to be images of God, not gods ourselves. Failing to accept that is humanity’s biggest problem.

This explains the concern which has led to nearly 700 church Ministers and Leaders writing to the Prime and First Ministers of the UK, expressing their concern about the response to the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. Our government has rightly sought to mitigate the effects of the disease, by social guidance and medical research. But increasingly it seems to have set itself on a course of saving us from death entirely. Everything must fall before the one aim of eliminating the virus right now. The problem is that salvation from the grave is not something it is in the power of government to do. Deliverance from death is in the gift of God, not of men. But more and more core parts of our humanity are being crushed in the attempt: generations being torn apart, students ordered to stay in their rooms, jobs and livelihoods destroyed, families put under intolerable strain.

In trying to be God, we are making ourselves less and less human

Now we get the leaders we deserve, of course. This is not the fault of this particular government so much as of all of us. We have become over the last half century or so a nation which believes that we have a right to be immortal, and we look to our government to make us so. What the Coronavirus has done is to bring death something the modern mind is apt to forget or ignore – uncomfortably close (though mercifully less so than we all at first feared), and we have looked to the state to deliver us from this terror.

Now government is a vital and precious thing. It is all about making life better and longer, indeed that is its God-given role. It is good and right for our government to do what it can to mitigate the effects of a pandemic through all the powers at its disposal. But it cannot eliminate death. If we think that Government can make us immortal, we will be sorely disappointed. No matter how many times we are told ‘together we will defeat this virus’, we will not. To attempt to eliminate death entirely is to attempt what we cannot do. But a vast amount of dehumanising damage is being done in the attempt. In trying to be God, we are making ourselves less and less human.

In this context, those of us who are called to be Christian ministers (such as the 700 signatories of this letter) are custodians of incredibly good news. The human race tried to be God and dehumanised itself; but God in response has become human to lift us up to God. Jesus Christ demonstrated that real humanity is humbling ourselves before God. And the Son of God came to earth to do far more than that: to reset our humanity, to suffer in his own crucified human body the full dehumanising power of our proud attempt to seize God’s crown for ourselves. And by doing so he opened the door to eternal life. When God raised him from the dead on Easter Sunday he defeated death for ever.

At a time when people more than anything need hope, the one place was closed where hope may truly be found

The Christian gospel is basically an invitation to come and join Jesus Christ. Join him in the future, raised from our graves as Jesus was from his. And join him now, as those who don’t try to be God but willingly worship him. And discover there the meaning of true humanity. Freed from the fear of death, we are able to begin truly to live. Christian ministers like me are tasked with making that invitation public.

This is why it is so frustrating, and ironic, that churches were ordered to close in response to the pandemic. For the Christian church is the one place on earth that has a real answer to a pandemic. In the attempt to save from death, the doors were shut of the one place on earth where there really is salvation from death. At a time when people more than anything need hope, the one place was closed where hope may truly be found.

Now for a few weeks, in a time of imminent or unknown danger, that may be necessary, as it was back in March. But we are well past that point, and churches are now among the safest of all venues. And now, more than ever, what is on offer inside them is what our country needs to hear.

Huge amounts of effort and money are being poured into research into treatments and vaccines for Covid-19, and rightly so. We must do what we can to limit the impact of this and all other diseases on human life. But we have in our midst another solution to disease and death, and one of a different and greater order. In a time when humanity is being destroyed it is God’s invitation, in his Son Jesus Christ, to have our humanity eternally restored.

That is why nearly 700 church ministers and leaders like me have this week called on the Prime and First Ministers to stop trying to do what God alone can do, and instead do what God has appointed them to do. Maintain justice, make our lives better and longer, balance the various threats against our humanity and protect us against them as best they can. And do not, in the name of trying to eliminate death, close down the things that matter most in this life, nor the only place on earth where we may enter the next one.

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