While places of worship have been given the green light to reopen under strict conditions during lockdown level 3, most far south churches have decided to continue with online services.
The decision to open places of worship sparked heavy debate on social media worldwide with Forbes.com reporting that 40 people in Germany became infected at a Baptist church service, despite the church being disinfected, attendees maintaining physical distancing and using hand sanitisers.
The same happened in Sacramento, California, where 71 people were infected after attending a church service.
Former Methodist Bishop and president of the South African Church Council (SACC), Reverend Peter Storey said allowing public worship was ill-advised and dangerous.
He told News24 that the lockdown and its impact had nothing to do with freedom of religion but with saving lives and, should worshipping resume, whatever good had been achieved by it could be “kissed goodbye”.
Reverend Olivia le Roux, superintendent for the Fish Hoek Circuit and resident minister for Simon’s Town and Ocean View Methodist Church, said that while the Methodist Church of Southern Africa did not conform to a universal, uniform society, and every church and minister had to consider all the elements of the Covid-19 pandemic to decide whether to open or not, the Cape of Good Hope Synod, which includes Fish Hoek, Simon’s Town, and Ocean View, would not open churches for services or gatherings.
She said the decision was made after taking into consideration the official statement of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, which reiterated its extreme caution in the matter. Each synod, she said, would be guided by its own context such as churches in hot spots.
In the meantime, they would continue Sunday worship on social media, WhatsApp video calls and messages.
Jono Holgate, of Victory Church, said he had always believed that a church was not a building. In fact, he said, their church did not have its own building and under normal circumstances they met in a rented space at a school. Their church would also not be reopening its doors just yet.
“We will reopen when we feel we can safely manage the number of people that usually attend services. The care of our people and our community is a high priority, and we don’t want to rush into something without careful thought and planning,” he said.
They too will continue to communicate online. He said the reopening of churches was definitely not a “one size fits all” situation and it was up to churches to make the best decision for the people entrusted to its care.
Dr Martin Barnard, of the Dutch Reformed Church Fish Hoek, said the church would continue to have online services on Facebook and its website and would also not be opening for services.
He said the church, with the information available to it, felt it was the responsible thing to do and it did not want to risk the lives of its congregation members.
However, he said, the church was never closed. While there were no services held, the church continued to help the needy during the pandemic.
He said the church assisted its members as usual, it was just the method of communication that varied. The church, he said, would make a list of its members and their needs and make sure services were available to all.
Father Andrew Cox, from St James Catholic Church, said the archbishop has instructed them to keep churches closed for the moment and he was awaiting further instructions.
He said he did not have time to set up streaming of their masses before the lockdown and so he phoned parishioners and sent out two weekly mailings during lockdown in order to keep in touch
“Since we have had some funerals during this time, I’ve had a sense of what is involved in a mass for 50 people, under the sanitation requirements and it is very do-able,” he said.
However, he said, there were many things to take into consideration before opening, such as thermometers, sufficient hand sanitiser and spray containers, hymn books and collection plates not being allowed to be passed around and a booking mechanism to ensure only 50 people attend.
“We are very aware of the virulence of this virus and the dangers attached to it,” he said.
Johann Kikillus, director of Soteria Ministries, an NPO Christian ministry that reaches out to the victims as well as the perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse, said one’s relationship with God was not confined to a specific building on a Sunday morning for an hour.
He said many churches had ageing congregations with very few younger members and it would be unwise to ignore the warnings that the elderly were most at risk. He said it would also be difficult for congregations with young families to try to keep children apart.
“I think the time has come for churches to rethink how ‘church’ is done. Church buildings can be used every single day of the week especially in a time when hardship has hit many communities,” he said.