Churches Defy Advice & Rules (& Science) to Gather Congregations

Churches Defy Advice & Rules (& Science) to Gather Congregations March 31, 2020

Churches in the US have long been a hotbed for adhering to the findings of science. The coronavirus has made no exception, as you no doubt will have heard.

The most newsworthy case of the downright stupidity – no, that is being polite – downright criminal endangerment of life is Life Tabernacle Church:

Pentecostal preacher Tony Spell didn’t just stand before his congregation on Sunday in defiance of the governor’s order to stay home: He leaped into the pews, paraded, hugged and laid hands on worshipers’ foreheads in prayer.

“We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower,” the Rev. Spell said from the pulpit of Life Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Baton Rouge. “We’re not breaking any laws.”

Across Louisiana, the coronavirus has infected more than 3,500 people and led to 151 deaths as of Sunday, with one of the highest per-capita death rates in the country down the interstate in New Orleans. To limit its spread, Gov. John Bel Edwards banned gatherings of more than 50 people earlier this month and on March 22 issued a stay-at-home order.

To comply, Catholic churches canceled Mass and switched to virtual services. Many Protestant churches did too. But some have continued to gather, with none drawing more attention than Life Tabernacle.

The 60-year-old church has continued to use its fleet of two dozen buses to bring hundreds of congregants to services three times a week from five surrounding parishes, including congregants from mobile home parks and public housing in low-income neighborhoods. More than 1,100 people of various races worship by age group at seven sanctuaries on the property. In addition to spiritual guidance, the church offers free breakfast. Only about 10% have stayed away, said Spell’s father, the Rev. Tim Spell, 66, including his own 90-yearold father who has been sheltering at home.

Within the last 24 hours, news came out of a Florida pastor being arrested for continuing to hold large services, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both.

As Bloomberg reports:

The River Church in Tampa, Florida, also held services this Sunday. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne posted a livestream of the services on YouTube, showing the sizable crowd. Howard-Browne said attendees were practicing “social distancing, or whatever” though the crowd appeared to be dense.

“We are not a non-essential service,” Howard-Browne said during the service. “You’re probably going to get infected at some other place, not here.”

The pastor condemned scientific reports about the virus and said that the pandemic was of less concern than the flu, a view that medical experts have disputed. The church did not respond to a request for comment.

Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio, with 3,500 members by one recent count, held services Sunday in defiance of a letter from the local health department urging it not to meet, according to a local news report. The church, in a statement, cited its first amendment right to religious assembly.

This isn’t just confined to the US, though:

The Russian Orthodox church had insisted that mayors could not close churches and that it would continue to “fulfil its pastoral duty” unless given an order from the Kremlin.

But later on Sunday the church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, called on believers to refrain from visiting churches.

Of course, calling on people to refrain isn’t the same as stopping public services.

In Romania and Georgia, two countries with strongly Orthodox Christian populations, there has been consternation over the insistence of some priests on continuing to use a shared spoon for the communion ritual.

Last Sunday, the day after Romania had been put into a strict lockdown, footage emerged from the city of Cluj of priests using a shared spoon. In Georgia, while the church has told worshippers not to spend long periods of time in churches and not to come if ill, it has rejected calls to abandon the reusing of spoons, claiming that as communion is a holy ceremony it is not possible to get ill during it.

In devoutly Catholic Poland, coronavirus restrictions limited the number of churchgoers to 50 at a time, and this was reduced again last week to five. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the head of the Polish episcopate, earlier in March called for more church services to accommodate worshippers, as not praying during the epidemic would be “unthinkable”. However, he has since urged faithful to use media broadcasts of services to prayer, especially over the Easter period.

In Brazil, the president, Jair Bolsonaro – who has called the coronavirus a “little flu” and attacked lockdown – included churches in a list of “public services and essential activities” essential for the “survival, health and safety” of the population, provided they followed health ministry guidelines.

Two days after Bolsonaro’s pronouncement, a judge in Rio de Janeiro state suspended his decree. Cathedrals in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are now closed. And while some churches are still open for prayer, mass and services have mostly moved online.

Science and religion, eh! Always good bedfellows…

It must also be mentioned that many churches are doing a good job of streaming services and adhering to the rules.


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