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Continued closing church services to contain COVID-19 pan

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Until now, I have shared the position that it makes sense to close places of worship in order to support government’s effort to avoid the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. This is because the central message of the gospel is for the church to bring life to the people and the church lives to ensure that its local community and the larger society enjoys life, not only spiritually but also physically. Moreover, it has been pointed out by many that the global Church leaders like the Pope and, in my own tradition, the Archbishop of Canterbury, have closed down the church congregational worships.

However, I am beginning to wonder whether there is any sense in continuing to stop church services in Nigeria at this time. While I continue to agree that the church has a duty to pay any sacrifice to save the lives of people from being infected by this disease, the reality on ground must now cause us to revisit and challenge this position.

In the first instance, it seems that the comparison between Rome or United Kingdom and our country is not a genuinely valid one. In the UK or Italy for instance, the churches are not only closed, but the market is also not running and movement of people is reduced to only unavoidable ones. I know that in the UK, you could be stopped by the police to show evidence for going out. So, churches cannot open in such context because it is dead serious and government is serious about enforcing it.

Secondly, their contexts make staying at home somewhat easier. The citizens can order their essential needs and have them delivered to their doorsteps. Economically, the people have the resources to deal with that. The situation is not so in our country. So, this is a problem. Consequently, open African markets are running here. And this would seem to be entirely incomprehensible, where churches are being asked to close. Today, while churches are being forced to close, the markets are running as usual, with plenty of people moving without keeping any social distancing and without maintaining any of the protocols that the NCDC has recommended. So, it would seem dangerous that we continue with this risky practice, while churches are closed. We may have to revisit this before we are seen to be discriminating against worshippers.

Churches are in fact well organised and better placed to maintain social distancing and observe syndicated worship, as they had started before this total ban. Some have in fact, started breaking their services into smaller groups to avoid big gatherings. Therefore, it would seem to amount to paying lip service to fight this virus, if markets are allowed to function as usual, while churches and mosques are closed.

It would seem to me that while the leaders of our respective states are trying to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in our land, the fight is no longer thorough. If churches and religious centres are closed, markets must close fully, otherwise churches and religious centres that can maintain syndicated worship should be allowed to practise corporate worship subject to keeping the rules of this game. We must not be seen to deprive genuine and disciplined worshippers of the opportunity to gather and pray together, while we are breaking the rule of social distancing and compromising public health by allowing traditional markets to run in their usual manner. The church is a partner in maintaining public health and not an enemy. Let the people meet to pray and worship in a scattered manner.

The Rt Revd Dr Stephen Fagbemi is the Anglican Bishop of Owo and former General Secretary, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion).


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