Samuel Pepys: May 14, 1995
Lords Day. Up, and with my wife to church, it being Whitsunday. My wife very fine in a new yellow birds-eye Hood, as the fashion is now. We had a most sorry sermon.
May 17, 2020
It’s starting; we are coming out of isolation. The federal government has introduced three Steps that will take us from lockdown to relative openness, without needing to wait for a vaccine or a cure. Here in Victoria Daniel Andrews is taking things a little more slowly, and there are still two outbreaks that seem to be spreading, one based at a meat works and the other centred on a McDonalds. But from last Tuesday we could visit each other’s homes again in small groups; we can have up to ten people at church; and Corio Bay has been covered in small fishing boats.
My sister-in-law brought the nieces down on Thursday, which was amazing and wonderful – and completely and utterly exhausting. After they left mother and I looked at her goods and chattels spread from one end of the house to the other and said, “We’d forgotten about this bit”. I did manage to revise the sermon for Friday’s recording while hiding in the study for a little while, but it was a good thing that I’d written most of it before and didn’t need to be too focused. But, oh!, it was SO GOOD to see them after so long. I had missed them so much. I don’t know why I’ve been trying to get jobs in Tasmania and the ACT when they would take me so far away from the nieces.
We’re not opening the church building yet, and I am almost certain that we won’t until we reach ‘Step Three’ when 100 people can gather. Even on the last Sunday before we closed, when the congregation had halved, 36 people still came to worship. There is just no way that we could choose the ten people able to come into the building in Step One and the twenty able to enter in Step Two. And I am fairly certain that the Synod doesn’t want us to open yet, although of course their advice is that decisions about opening are to be made by Church Councils. When the first three questions on the checklist are:
- How will you limit the number of people who will attend?
- Will you discourage attendance by people (including Ministers) in COVID-vulnerable groups?
- If more than the legal limit arrive, how will you decide who is turned away?
the subtext is pretty much text.
We’re lucky, in the Uniting Church, that while we are very big on the importance of worshipping as a community, we generally don’t feel that the building in which that community gathers is equally important. There are exceptions, and there are definitely people who have left the church in a huff after ‘their church [building]’ has been sold, which happens quite often in the Uniting Church given the number of buildings it inherited from the three uniting denominations. But although people will be champing at the bit to get back to worshipping together, they won’t be demanding that church buildings be opened to enable them to do that. This is in contrast with the Catholic Church, which apparently in the UK is asking to be able to open its church buildings ahead of other denominations so people can enter them for private prayer. As good Protestants we have taught our people that since God is omnipresent they can pray anywhere.
But we will have people who want to be able to gather, and I am worried. Many church members are part of those ‘COVID-vulnerable groups’ the Synod asks about, and both the Cedar Meats and the McDonalds outbreaks are reminding us how infectious this virus is. There is no vaccine; there is no cure. It’s a virus; antibiotics don’t work on it. Once social distancing ends, we might see a second-wave of infections. I am terrified that if we allow people to come back to church, even with all the industrial-strength cleaning the Synod is telling us to do, even if we don’t touch each other and don’t share food, people could get sick. While contact tracing will help prevent some infections, so that people will be able to isolate once they know that they have come into contact with someone with COVID19, what if someone unknowingly comes to church when infected? But the alternative is waiting until there is a vaccine and that’s likely to take at least a year to 18 months. That is if one is even developed; we still don’t have a vaccine for HIV. We can’t do that, either.
I guess that we have to trust the state and federal governments to only move through the Steps when they know it is safe. That fewer than 100 people have died of this in Australia so far, compared with the tens of thousands in other countries, suggests that they probably are trust-worthy. God, I hope so.
In the meantime, today lots of congregation members will have watched a video of the celebrating of Communion and participated with their own bread and wine at home. And I do not care what better theologians and liturgists than me say about it being impossible to ‘virtually’ celebrate the Eucharist. The people I am caring for want it, and so I will offer it to them. Other celebrants may be happy to let their people dwell in the pain of not being able to receive Communion. In the midst of this pandemic I will do everything I possibly and safely can to reduce my people’s pain. So there!