Last Tuesday, the Australian Christian Lobby called out the NSW government’s approach of imposing greater COVID-19 restrictions on churches than on pubs, clubs and restaurants, saying it failed the ‘pub test’.
Religious groups and members of parliament applied courteous pressure on the government to put religious gatherings and places of worship on the same footing as pubs, clubs, cafés and restaurants. By late Thursday, the government got the message.
From 1 June 2020, in NSW 50 people will now be able to attend regular religious ceremonies, with 50 at funerals and 20 at weddings. Church venues will still be subject to the four-square metre rule.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard claimed the NSW Government had been cautious in easing restrictions due to extensive virus outbreaks in places of worship and among choirs overseas.
But it was our position that the double standard did not pass the ‘pub test’ and that potential dangers could be alleviated by appropriate safeguards. In requesting churches to be allowed to re-open, we were not asking for special treatment but to be treated equally.
Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, of Sydney made the point that NSW faced the bizarre situation where 20 people could travel on a bus together to St Mary’s Cathedral, but only 10 could go inside.
The NSW Premier listened to the growing number of Christian voices and adjusted course—thanks to the constructive working together of various groups. The Government’s backdown shows that as Christians we have significant power if we stay active and organised in the public sphere. It is such a joy to know that we can put our churches back into the heart of public life.
In Western Australia, the state’s government has consistently treated churches the same as other venues, and has led the nation in winding back restrictions on church attendance and other venues. From 6 June 2020 gatherings of up to 100 persons per single undivided space and up to 300 persons in total per venue across multiple spaces will be allowed. There will also be a winding back of the four square metres per person to two square metres.
Churches provide an essential service in our community, sustaining spiritual, emotional and mental health. The gospel message speaks of the hope and comfort Jesus offers.
During the last six weeks, our pastors, priests and online communities have kept us together using digital technology, but Christians are at heart a community of God’s people. There is great strength in coming together face-to-face as one body in Christ to worship and praise God. Churches publicly witness that God lives in the centre of our hearts and cities: God comes first.
In the first centuries of Christianity, the followers of Christ referred to themselves as ecclesia, the Greek word for ‘Church’, which literally means “an assembly” or “coming together”. From our very foundations, the Church was defined by the ‘coming together’ of God’s people. This idea is so part of the fabric of Christianity, that we are promised by Christ that; “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20).
I look forward to once again participating in prayer with my local parish to offer thanks for God’s mercy in this time and to pray for those who continue to suffer due to the virus.
Let us all make the most of the newfound opportunity for prayer and fellowship that these changes provide!