I have great faith in the government’s capacity to take a moderately bad situation and turn it into an epic job-killing, life-changing, debacle that requires decades of recovery. That being said, I have three kids down with a flu unlike any flu I have ever seen. We have six kids. I have seen much flu.
Chest pains, dry cough, extremely high fever, headache, all the Covid 19 symptoms right down the line. Sicknesses do not phase me. I am hardly a hypochondriac. Living that way with the number of children we have would mean perpetual insanity. Even so, this is a very odd and concerning thing they have. We are now quarantined. We probably will never know what they’ve come down with because the doctor, wisely I think, does not want us to come in to be tested for regular flu or pneumonia. My kids are robust and healthy and not in the high-risk categories and the doctor is concerned, again wisely, that they not spread whatever it is they have to the many people in the waiting rooms or ER. If the chest pains turn to difficulty breathing, we will go in.
All this to say, my kids most likely contracted whatever this is last week when there were somewhere under 600 confirmed cases of Covid 19 in New York State, mostly clustered around New York City. We live 3 hours away from the City. At the time there were no confirmed cases in our county. We homeschool. “Social Distancing” is our life. If indeed they do have Covid 19, that would indicate that this thing has spread far wider than the official numbers suggest and that it spreads quickly and that would lend credence to the closings and lockdowns I think. My kids will be fine no doubt, but I would hate to see an elderly person get this or someone with a weakened system.
In the end, we may find this has all been a grand case of governmental incompetence and media hype. I am not a doctor or a statistician. I do not know. But I am not willing to say that everyone is lying or panicking or losing their minds.
A few days ago Rusty Reno published an article in First Things in which he criticized the decision on the part of various Roman Catholic bishops to suspend services. I understand. I am the rector of an Anglican church and when it comes to corporate worship, the hearing of sermons, and the reception of the sacrament my zeal makes Cotton Mather look like a latitudinarian. Moreover, if brains were cars Rusty Reno would be driving a Ferrari LaFerrari while I sport around town in my used Kia Spectra. But I do think he is wrong in this.
The command not to neglect the assembly is clear and plain. The word and sacrament are the means by which Christ feeds and sanctifies his flock. They are necessary for the health of the soul. But even the sternest ecclesiastical regulations allow for human weakness. If a parishioner is sick with some kind of contagious illness, it is universally understood that he ought to stay home, both for his sake and for the sake of others. This is not because the church is afraid of death. As my wife wrote in a more thorough and thoughtful response* to Rusty Reno’s piece, “I don’t think it belies a fear of death to actually try to keep people from dying.” If, as seems to be the case with regard to Covid 19, the elderly and weak do indeed face a mortal threat and if, as we are told, the virus has an incubation period of five days before any symptoms are manifest, and if it spreads at an alarming rate, it is not a bad decision to suspend public services for a brief period.
We held services last Sunday. We kept our children back, thank God, because one of them was recovering from a spell of norovirus. Attendance was very low, but among those who attended were several people I know to be vulnerable because of age or immunodeficiency. Why did they come? I do not know. The desire to draw near Christ? loneliness? a sense of Christian obligation? perhaps all of the above. I know that were we to hold services this Sunday, these saints would be there and that would put them in serious danger. That is one reason we decided to suspend.
God commands that we not neglect the assembly but that command was given to build up the church and encourage her members, not to endanger and harm them. It speaks to the regular run of events, not to times of sickness and plague when gathering together could result in seriously harming the most vulnerable. Love for neighbors, especially for seniors and those with underlying at-risk conditions, means that during times of pandemic illness, Christians must do all that we can to avoid doing harm. If there were no pandemic sickness and the government were to tyrannically demand that we not meet on pain of death, I think we would be obligated to disobey and face the consequences. But in this case, lives are at stake, not the Gospel.
I do not think there can or should be a universal rule in times such as this. Bishops, priests, pastors, elders, deacons, boards, and sessions will need to make decisions that will most glorify Christ and care for the souls under their cure. In some places that will mean the full suspension of services. In others, cautious persistence. Pastors who are not quarantined should, I think, be willing to risk illness to bring communion to the sick and do all in their power to maintain the strength and unity of the body. Martin Luther is supremely good on this question. Thanks be to God that we live in an era of such technological wonder and prowess that even if we cannot meet in person, God’s word can still be heard, his praises sung, corporate prayers and confessions said and absolution given.
*She would drive a Porsche 918 Spyder