The Covid-19 crisis is a life-changing event. Those of us who live through it will look back with I suspect a degree of dread and a sense of wonder as to how things got so crazy. One tiny virus managed to disrupt the whole world and cause economies to shrink, families to change and even governments to decree what we can and cannot do in worship.
Many of us have learned a whole new vocabulary – 'social distancing', 'masked up', 'let's do Zoom'. Would that we had also learned the language of humility and repentance.
Governments have had a difficult time, and you cannot but empathise with the almost impossible task they have been faced with. But sometimes they don't make it easy for themselves. Some of their decisions are hard to understand and respect. And when we lose respect we often lose the incentive to follow their rules – especially when the rules just seem arbitrary and nothing to do with 'the science'.
Take, for example, the Scottish government's recent decision to move 'beyond level zero' last week. Level zero does not apparently mean zero restrictions. Even moving into negative territory does not mean that. Because we have been told that although most restrictions will go, it is still necessary for masks to be worn in shops and churches. However not in clubs.
Apparently the science tells us that 500 young people (who are the least likely to be vaccinated) dancing, singing, shouting in a sweaty mass in a night club are less likely to get Covid than a couple of dozen mostly vaccinated older people sitting in the wide spaces of their half empty church! Who knew that Covid was so discriminating!
Likewise we hear that Rangers and Celtic will be able to play in front of capacity crowds of 50,000 people packed together – but churches are dangerous places. Of course this has nothing to do with 'the science' and everything to do with what the government thinks it can get away with. There is almost no chance of being able to enforce a mask mandate in a club, and every chance that church leaders will mildly acquiesce in whatever the government decrees.
Anyway, why does it matter? I have seen church leaders who just simply say that the government knows best and are just following the science. Others make the more valid point that there are those in their congregations who have got so used to seeing the mask as a protection, that they are frightened of being with people who are not wearing them. And still others say it's such a small thing, what does it matter?
To which the answer is simple – if it is such a small thing, then why does the government make it such a big thing? The answer is largely psychological. They want us to be afraid – so that we will be both cautious and compliant.
And masks do matter in public gatherings. Our faces are a primary part of our communication. There is a world of difference between preaching to the unmasked and preaching to those whose faces are covered. Singing is much more difficult with covered faces – as is social interaction.
But the main issue here is simply one of consistency and freedom. When the government tells clubbers they don't need to mask up, but churchgoers do, then they are discriminating. All are not being treated equally. The government has already lost a court case to Scottish church leaders when a judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to make in-person services a criminal offence.
Perhaps the Scottish churches need to revisit the courts to ensure that they, and they alone, determine what they will do in churches – and to prevent churches being ordered by the State to live by a different standard to others.
It is clear that once governments get a taste of being able to order churches on how to behave and what to do – it's a taste which will quickly become an appetite. What is next? Vaccine passports? Will churches be required to exclude people from public services if they have not been vaccinated? Some churches may want to do that – although the idea that Jesus wants a church where no lepers are welcome is a strange one.
But to be told by the government who may, and who may not, attend the church crosses way over the line. And why stop there? Why not tell us what we should believe? Tell us, for example, that the Christian teaching on marriage is 'hate speech' and that we need to change our teaching to suit the doctrines of the State?
The Scottish Church of course has had to deal with the encroachments of the State several times before – the Covenanters in the 17th Century, the patronage crisis that led to the Disruption in 1843. My favourite example is of Andrew Meville standing before King James and telling him: "And now, Sire, I must tell you that there are two kingdoms—the kingdom of Christ, which is the church, whose subject King James VI is, and of whose kingdom he is not a head, nor a lord, but a member; and they whom Christ hath called, and commanded to watch over his church, and govern his spiritual kingdom, have sufficient power and authority from him so to do, which no Christian king nor prince should control or discharge, but assist and support, otherwise they are not faithful subjects to Christ."
Can we envision church leaders today saying the same to Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon?! Do today's church leaders have the stomach or strength to stand up to the State – or will they just be its willing instruments?
Of course there is another route churches could go. Perhaps we should designate ourselves as nightclubs? Not being my scene I had to do a wee bit of research – but lo and behold, there is such a genre as Christian electric house music. I can imagine your local pastor shouting 'God is in the House!' The idea is ridiculous, but not quite as ridiculous as the government rules that drove us here! It's time the church united and said 'enough'.
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia. He blogs at The Wee Flea.