WHAT might British churches do if the Covid-19 lockdown banning them from meeting physically together continues into June? Would some of them start meeting again in their buildings?
Unlike some churches in the United States, British churches are co-operating fully with the lockdown regime. The leadership of the Church of England has even exceeded the rules, demanding that clergy do not enter their church buildings to conduct live-streamed services or even for private prayer.
The Roman Catholic Church in Britain has not gone that far. It has closed its buildings but it allows its clergy to live-stream services from their churches.
In which British churches might a conscience-driven protest movement start? The older Protestant denominations such as the Church of England, the Methodists and the United Reformed Church do not seem minded to question the lockdown regime or to call on the government to come up with an exit strategy. The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is at least talking to the government about when it might be allowed to reopen church buildings, but has said it will not do so until the restrictions are lifted.
It would seem that the most likely candidates for principled defiance of the lockdown would be the newer churches in the Pentecostal and independent evangelical scene. These churches are more counter-cultural, more inclined to dissent from the prevailing culture of political correctness in the British governing class.
The churches inclined to start meeting again in their buildings would, one imagines, be led by people who were sceptical about the proportionality of the lockdown, but they would be mainly driven by the New Testament vision of the church as the body of Christ.
The Apostle Paul used the metaphor of the human body to teach a congregation inclined to disunity about their spiritual interdependence as Christ’s people: ‘If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now God hath set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him’ (1 Corinthians 12v17-18 – Authorised Version).
This metaphor for the church then turns into a synonym: ‘Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular’ (v27).
This New Testament description of the church as the body of Christ rules out putting online meetings on an equal theological footing with the physical gathering of God’s people. Christ had a physical body in his incarnate state on earth. Now in his exalted heavenly state he continues to have a physical body on earth – the human members of his church gathered together in a shared physical space for corporate worship.
According to the Holy Scriptures, virtual Christianity will not do. The body of Christ should never be turned into an avatar.
So, with supermarkets being allowed to open during the lockdown and the feared overwhelming of hospitals not materialising, might some churches consider that they ought not to deny their God-given calling to be the body of Christ here on British soil? At what point under a long lockdown is of course the tricky question. But the point might come for some churches when they think the choice between obeying God or man is staring them in the face.
How might the police react if theological principle moved some churches to start meeting again? Would they arrest Christian worshippers or issue them with on-the-spot fines? If there were prosecutions, how might the courts react? Would they support the police or would they uphold the ancient British right to peaceable Christian assembly?
The Attorney General of the United States, William Barr, has ordered an investigation into ‘state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens’.
He said: ‘As the Department of Justice explained recently in guidance to states and localities taking steps to battle the pandemic, even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.’
Is the British government capable of producing such a champion of the rights of Christian worshippers under a long lockdown preventing their churches from meeting as the body of Christ?