‘These are dangerous places’: the deadly risk of returning to normal worship

Pic: Israel police

By Andrew Brown, 20 May 2020

In contrast to the caution of the British government and churches, lockdowns are easing all over the world to allow people back to their places of worship under variously strict conditions. Israel allowed synagogues to reopen yesterday at half capacity, subject to social distancing rules. Greeks returned to their Orthodox churches on Sunday. In the Philippines the government is allowing very small congregations to return — five people in areas of strict lockdown, 10 in the rest of the country.

These changes have been welcomed by some faith leaders and denounced as not going far enough by others. But are they safe?

In the Philippines, where 850 people have died from 13,000 confirmed cases, the remaining restrictions were furiously denounced by Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic administrator of Manila. “The limitations they set to religious activities are . . . just another way of saying that you do not have religious activities.

“Five persons for such a big church as Baclaran or the Manila Cathedral is laughable! The one-size-fits-all directive is really unreasonable! Why not give instead the instruction that there be one-metre or two-metre distance between persons in a church?”

The Times of Israel carried a blog by Arieh Kovler, arguing that “synagogues are perhaps the single most dangerous place, when it comes to catching the coronavirus”. He cited a government report that showed that where the site of an infection in Israel could be traced, a quarter of all cases had been transmitted there. They were more dangerous than either hotels or restaurants.

He questioned whether the regulations would be observed: “Will synagogues and mosques really turn away that 51st person who wants to join the prayers? The open-air minyan outside my building never had fewer than 35 people, when the legal limit was 19, and it had well over 60 this past Shabbat. Hard to imagine a synagogue slamming the door on a man who wants to pray.”

Communal singing or chanting is a huge part of religious experience. But it is also extremely dangerous. One choir rehearsal at a church in Washington State in March infected 60 people and killed two of them, even though no one had any visible symptoms. About the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one church in rural Arkansas had 35 of its congregation of 92 test positive; three died. Contact with the congregation infected another 26 people, of whom one died.

In Houston, Texas, five of the seven members of a Redemptorist community have tested positive last week for the virus, and their church has been closed after the death of a priest.

At least two of the churches ostentatiously defying lockdown orders across the US have seen deaths in their leadership or their congregations.

In the Catholic diocese of New Jersey, prayer will be allowed but it must be private and supervised; priests may hear confessions, but only masked and with the penitent masked as well, and not in confessional booths.

These precautions are sure to be criticised. Some people believe explicitly that faith will save them from the virus. Others argue that the risk to human life is negligible compared with the harm done to spiritual life. Diane Montagna, a conservative Catholic journalist, tweeted that Catholics receiving communion in the hand with masks on was “absurd . . . an outrage that should be stopped immediately . . . They will then fiddle with & remove the mask while holding Our Lord in the Host, increasing chances that the Host (or particles) drop to the floor. Why is His safety being sacrificed for ‘ours’?”

And stuck in the middle are Christians who are also scientists, like Dr Francis Collins, who won the £1.1m Templeton Prize for progress in religion today, and who heads the US National Institutes of Health after leading the Human Genome Project.

Dr Collins told the Religion News service: “I think as Christians we have to have as our No 1 priority that we are going to care for the sick and the vulnerable. I cannot see, therefore, that it’s justifiable to bring large numbers people together even in the name of worship, because of the risk it carries.”

He said every church gathering should be concerned about transmitting the virus, and that it would remain unsafe to gather in churches until there was “a lot more testing capability” to ensure the virus was no longer present in a congregation.