Reverend Peter Storey: Allowing public worship ill-advised and dangerous

The writer says it is wishful thinking that people would observe social distancing in places of worship. (Rev Kevin Zondagh, Supplied)
The writer says it is wishful thinking that people would observe social distancing in places of worship. (Rev Kevin Zondagh, Supplied)

Caring clergy should refuse to co-operate. Too many congregations will serve as multipliers of this ruthless virus and people will return home - perhaps to some rural village - with death as their invisible companion, writes Peter Storey.

The decision to permit public worship observances of whatever faith is both ill-advised and dangerous.

Of course, I fully empathise with those of my and other faiths who dearly miss gathering regularly with fellow believers and sharing the rituals precious to their beliefs.

This lockdown has caused my longest ever absence from public worship in 81 years. 

It has been a painful break, but nothing like as painful as being an 81 year-old infected with Covid-19. 

Let's be clear: the lockdown and its impact on faith communities has nothing to do with freedom of religion.

Speaking for my church denomination, if this had been visited upon us by a government seeking to silence our witness to Gospel truths, I and thousands of co-believers would have unhesitatingly defied the state.

The South African Council of Churches' (SACC) churches and others did exactly that in the apartheid days, reminding Caesar to keep off God's territory.  

But this lockdown has been all about saving lives, not defending religious liberty. For that reason, it was accepted more or less universally by South Africa's faith communities.

It was a matter of public health, not faith.

No community, however respected or respectable, has any right to multiply a murderous virus by dangerous behaviour. 

That is why I can't for the life of me - and for the lives of all other South Africans - understand what has so suddenly changed that thousands of congregations spread across the length and breadth of our land will now be permitted to gather for public worship.

I cannot understand how religious leaders in their right mind could have motivated such a change, nor why President Ramaphosa and his advisers decided upon it. 

Of course we miss worship; of course only the privileged can afford access to fancy Zoom "services" and that's unjust; of course churches and faith institutions will be struggling financially, but Mr President, if you let South Africa's religious communities loose in this way, you can kiss goodbye to whatever good has been achieved by 50 million painful sacrifices during lockdown across the land. 

I'm not talking about the surfer who wants to get back in the water or the bar-fly who wants his pint back; I’m talking about the desperately poor family without access to food, the faithful worker no longer in employment, the small business person who has lost everything and the heroic health workers risking their lives.

"What was the point?" they will ask, when houses of worship reopen before their eyes, virtually guaranteeing a spike in infections. 

When the President tells us that "strict regulations for such gatherings will be formulated" my response is, "what planet are you living on?"

Certainly, there are scores of denominations and hundreds of worship places willing and capable of enforcing such measures, but there are literally thousands of others that either cannot or will not.

The religious landscape in South Africa is vast, varied, often chaotic and sometimes fraudulent.

So many church leaders, for instance, have no supervisory institution and are accountable only to themselves.

And does anyone seriously think the "50 limit" will be observed by those manipulative self-ordained "prophets, bishops and apostles" who rely on large numbers because they simply pocket the Sunday offerings?

Sadly, Mr President, the prefix "religious" guarantees neither wisdom nor sainthood. 

Furthermore, talk of "social distancing" in worship services is wishful thinking.

CR knows that African worship is vibrant, loud, and seldom still.

People praise with their bodies as well as their voices and once they get going, pity the clergy, be they bishop or priest, who try to cut them short. 

I've had plenty of experience of trying to do so, with minimal success. Talk of such regulation is hollow. 

The truth is that in countless places, people will come together joyfully and gratefully to greet their God, only to be accompanied by a silent killer that will pass either to them, or from them to other joyful friends.

Too many congregations will serve as multipliers of this ruthless virus and people will return home - perhaps to some rural village - with death as their invisible companion. 

It is not too late to review this ill-advised decision.

It is not too late for religious leaders to say, "we have been too hasty Mr President, the consequences could be too dire, let us roll it back before we live with regret".  

However, realists tell me that such a recantation is highly unlikely, in which case the next best thing would be for local clergy and believers to exercise some real religious freedom by ignoring this dangerous Presidential "exception" and for the sake of their members and all South Africans refuse to hold or attend public worship services until the coming Covid storm is past.  

In any case I’m fairly sure that right now God is less interested in life-threatening praise gatherings and much more concerned to see people of faith on the front-line of ministries of service to the suffering, the poor, the hungry, the fearful and the dying.  

Speaking for the religion I know best, certainly such compassionate service was always more important for Jesus. 

- Rev Prof Peter Storey, former Methodist Bishop and President of SACC

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Zama zama crackdown: What are your thoughts on West Village residents taking the law into their own hands?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Authorities should bring in the army already
10% - 2461 votes
Illegal miners can't be scapegoated for all crime
53% - 12634 votes
What else did we expect without no proper policing
34% - 8117 votes
Vigilante groups are also part of the problem
3% - 808 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.