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Should churches be the first to reopen?

By Greg Bondar - posted Friday, 15 May 2020


Recently the headlines in The Australian under, 'Catholic bishops push Premier to open NSW churches' (3 May), raised my eyebrows in joy. The proposal to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian was signed by Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher and 17 others, including Archbishop of Canberra Christopher Prowse and the bishops of regional NSW. The Catholic bishops have proposed a four-stage reopening of NSW Catholic churches as cases of COVID-19 abate.

Last week the Prime Minister launched his Three-Step plan to ease COVID restrictions with Stage 1 allowing up to 30 people to attend funerals outdoors and up to 10 people to attend weddings outdoors moving to Step 3 which would allow gatherings of up to 100 people with retail, pubs, clubs, sporting events, and restaurants all getting a mention. But what about the Churches?

There is no denying that the demographics of many congregations make sanctuaries a risky place for gatherings to resume. Under the 'Three-Steps' approach, churches presumably will have the option to return to in-person worship. The new initiative by the US Liberty Counsel-a Christian legal team that has defended congregations who gathered in violation of government orders-encouraged churches nationwide to resume services on May 3.

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So, should churches be one of the first mass gatherings to reopen? If yes, then religious demography indicates that, for the sake of the safety of aging congregations, pastors should be cautious. Their sanctuaries are ideal places for the coronavirus to spread, and the results could be catastrophic.Along with an ageing national population, the Sydney-based National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data shows the church-going population is also ageing with an average age of adult church attenders being 53. While the 70 plus age group are strongly represented in church (comprising 12% of the population but 25% of all church attendees), the age groups under 50 are underrepresented.

Observation and experience have shown that older churchgoers are more likely to be the most eager to return to church services. FamilyVoice research has shown that the elderly were particularly prone to social isolation and loneliness before the pandemic, and during the intervening weeks of social distancing, they were less likely to have participated in the digital options offered as an alternative to in-person fellowship.

According to Australian Department of Health statistics, Death by Age Group shows that over 90% of deaths by age group were over 60 years of age, and further, most deaths reported have been in males 70 and 89 years.

(https://www.health.gov.au/resources/covid-19-deaths-by-age-group-and-sex)

If the elder saints who faithfully fill our pews also fall in the demographic shown to be at the greatest risk right now, why are we rushing to open churches given that one of the most consistent findings is that the COVID-19 disease carries a much higher fatality rate among older adults. Whilst most Christians take the approach of 'Faith over Fear', churches need to be mindful of Benjamin Franklin's oft quoted phrase: 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

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Most would agree that Baby Boomers and members of older generations make up around half or more of every major Christian tradition in the country. Among a wide variety of denominations, close to half of members are 55 and over. According to NCLS data, the Anglican and Uniting Churches were the denominations with the oldest profile, with an average age of 55 and 61, respectively. In contrast, the mean age of Baptists was 47 and of Pentecostals was 39. Overall, there has been an ageing trend across the churches. From 1996 to 2006, the proportion of people in churches aged under 40 had decreased from 29% to 25%, and the proportion of people aged 60 and over increased from 34% to 42%.

Many churches that opt to return to worship in their sanctuary will not rush back to the norm; there will be extra efforts to sanitise, promote handwashing, and encourage the 1.5m social distance between attendees. But even with these precautions in place, returning to the shared space of worship-of singing, sitting, kneeling, communion, and greeting-brings the possibility of unknowingly spreading the virus among a population that is older and particularly vulnerable.

News reports highlighted that in the USA, churches became hot spots for the initial outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus. If things go belly-up, they could be responsible for the dreaded "second wave" of infections.Global health opinion suggests a phased plan for congregations gathering amid this pandemic.

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About the Author

Greg Bondar serves as the NSW State Director of Family Voice Australia. He has been working as a senior executive within the not-for-profit, government, and the corporate sector for over 30 years

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