I was recently drawn to an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled “This Could Have Been A Great Opportunity for The Church” written by political commentator Douglas Murray (no relation). For anyone on the centre right of politics Murray is usually a must read – clever, articulate, very pro freedom of speech and very vocal in pushing back against the religion of woke that has crept into our culture. Murray is also gay. And an atheist. The kind of person you would expect would only ever talk about the Church to criticise or call for its removal. And yet Murray’s article was lamenting the closure of churches throughout the land during this Covid-19 pandemic. Confessing that he has tried to visit churches in his locality he has been disappointed to see the doors shut and the “closed for worship” signs on the door. He goes on to say how bemusing this is when people are now going to the zoo, shopping till their hearts content, visiting the beach, getting a take-away or playing professional football. Indeed, there are many things we can now do, but not go to church. Murray’s biggest surprise is there has not been more of a push back from the church, insisting that they should be considered as essential. His biggest cause for complaint has been at the silence of the church in this time, discussing how the only official statements from the established church has been to criticise Dominic Cummings and speak out against racism. Why has the church been silent asks Murray? Why hasn’t it been speaking to the nation with boldness and confidence?
I read the article with some interest and then sat back over the past few days and waited for the response. I have read dozens and dozens of angry responses. But not from non-church members horrified by the thought that churches could re-open and become super spreaders of Corona but from Christians, indeed many of them church leaders. Who does Murray think he is criticising us? Doesn’t he realise that the church has never been closed? Hasn’t he visited my YouTube channel? Hasn’t he watched my Facebook live? Doesn’t he know about our foodbank? This response has sadly shown the church at its worse – smug, self-righteous, arrogant and over defensive. Murray is the very kind of person we should be reaching out to (dare I suggest he seems a seeker) and he is saying we have been silent. Our response “no we haven’t been” is as laughable as the shop owner shouting at his non-existent customers whilst all the while insisting that his advertising strategy is flawless.
Now Murray is wrong on two counts – of course the church has not been inactive during this season – indeed churches have adapted to technology brilliantly and some (at least early in lockdown) saw their on-line reach spread further than ever. And churches have been literal life savers for many – in terms of pastoral care, mental health support and vital food bank providers. For all of this we can give ourselves a big pat on the back.
But what Murray seems to be surprisingly calling for is (even if he would not use this term himself) is a prophetic voice. He is calling for the church to speak boldly and clearly and bring a message of hope and faith and confidence to the nation. And yet the response to Murray’s article seems to indicate that the government (who will soon announce churches can re-open we trust) have more faith than some churches “we are going to remain closed till there is a vaccine” “it’s too risky right now” “we are doing ok with the on-line thing so we’ll keep doing that” are some of the comments that would no doubt bemuse Murray. Despite the fact that the risk of catching Covid-19 outside a hospital or care-home is now (thankfully) very small, still some Christians are afraid and reluctant to gather and some leaders hesitant to re-open.
Could it be that virtual church, which has been a great source of comfort to us all during this time, could end up now being a comfort blanket that could end up smothering us? I am reminded that in the story of Joseph in Genesis, Egypt became a place of salvation for Israel, only for it to end up a place of slavery by the time we get to Exodus. And when they left, many longed for the comfort of the Egyptians rather than the “new normal” of Canaan.
I am not an anti-lockdown voice. I believed lockdown was the right thing and supported the government in introducing it. I also believe the church was right to go along with obeying the law of the land. This was not the government persecuting the church or the silencing the gospel – churches, schools, hotels, shops – we were all in the same boat.
But now airlines are insisting that the government scraps it is quarantine for overseas arrivals. Restaurants are insisting that the government drops its 2-metre rule so they can serve more customers. I have read of several pubs that are reopening in July even if the law does not change. Thousands of people have gathered together throughout the land over the past 2 weeks, believing that their cause that “Black Lives Matter” is more important than obeying the law.
Whilst of this takes place, the church is mainly happy and content, taking things cautiously, happy to take direction from a government led by someone who I do not believe has any religious inclinations at all. How crazy that Spirit filled children of God are waiting to be told how they should worship for the foreseeable future by a bunch of non-church going politicians! Meanwhile a gay atheist is saying “come on church! Stand up for yourselves! Take the lead! Be a voice to those in power! If you want your meetings to be important to us, show us how important they are to you! Fight for this!”
Virtual church has been and will be a blessing but gathering together is a clear command of the scriptures, and of our Lord who promises to be there when two or three gathers together. We are the assembly, the called-out ones. We were birthed in fire when the Holy Spirit fell on 120 who were together in one place.
Premier League football is back – but it is not the same with the restrictions they say. Meanwhile the church seems to be happy with its restrictions – “keep em going” it says.
Our history has been one of persecution, martyrdom, death, prison, floggings and preaching the gospel when the world has tried to silence us. Today in China you are free to attend church – but one in which the government has control over what you say, do or sing. Despite this, thousands meet illegally, in secret underground churches, risking their very lives and those of their families. These are the heroes of the faith.
I disagree with Murray that the church has been silent in this lockdown, but I wholeheartedly agree with him that now the church needs to be bold and courageous and speak and act in confidence. If the church is hesitant, fearful and reluctant during this next few weeks and months it will have lost the right to ever again speak into the life of this nation. We have stayed quiet when abortion laws have grown more and more liberal. We have stayed quiet when gay marriage was brought in. We have stayed quiet when the school assembly has become more of a moral lesson than an opportunity for Christian teaching. Just this week the government have brought in laws to make divorce “easier”. Once again, the church has been silent. So, am I surprised when churches do not speak out when they are told they are less important than a zoo or when they are told they may not be able to sing songs of worship? Alas, not really.
You all know the scriptures about being bold, courageous, not having a spirit of fear etc. We have preached it and heard it many times. And yet if you live in the West you’ve probably never have had to live it. In my lifetime what have I really had to be afraid of? And now there is a threat that naturally should make us afraid, should make us cautious, should keep us hidden away. So, what do I do? Give in to that? Or actually live out what I have read and preached over the years. Actually, model the boldness and the audacity that I have admired in the books of martyrs and missionaries that I grew up reading about.
Christians should obey and respect governments when possible. Christians should not feel they are somehow immune to sickness or disease. Christians should show love and compassion. Christians should not be so dependent on meetings that they cannot worship or pray in private. But Christians should also not be afraid or timid. Christians should not be afraid to speak to governments demanding their voice is heard. Christians should not think that on-line church is in anyway an acceptable substitute to gathering in one place, greeting each other with a holy kiss, raising our voices together in worship, laying hands on the sick and gathering together at the altar to meet with God.
Over the past three months the Church has modelled Jesus the lamb, Jesus the pastor, Jesus the teacher. But now we must model Jesus the lion, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the evangelist, Jesus the apostle.
Our response in lockdown has been good but it is how we respond now that will determine whether we are a voice in this generation or not. Be bold. Be courageous. How we need the Church to be that voice of boldness in this nation! If we do not speak, maybe God will once again speak through Balaam’s donkey. May our response by more humble than Balaam’s was. Maybe God no longer speaks through donkeys. Maybe he speaks through gay atheists instead.