Regional Victoria is beginning to return to some semblance of normal life as restrictions ease. Restaurants, pubs and shops are reopening. School and sport are resuming. Sadly, what remain locked down are our churches.
The inconsistencies of the Victorian Government’s roadmap for Regional Victoria means churches remain one of the most restricted parts of our communities for no apparent reason. Cafes can serve 50 people outdoors, but church services are limited to 10 outdoors. Indoor restaurants and retail shops can operate according to the 4 square metre density requirement, but churches cannot.
This is particularly frustrating when many church buildings are large enough to accommodate our entire congregations under the same requirement. There is no reason why churches cannot open in line with the same restrictions as restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops with all the safeguards in place - 1.5m between family groups, mask wearing, cleaning, signage, hand sanitising and record keeping.
The question must be raised: why are churches being treated so differently? For too long the role of the church in community life has been overlooked and undervalued by governments. If this lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that people need human contact and a place of connection and belonging in our communities. Churches provide this and more. They are uplifting places where people find hope, support and a reprieve from the challenges of life. Churches create an unparalleled connection for the social, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of people from all backgrounds and many who are otherwise isolated. For these reasons the church is, in itself, an essential service for many regional Victorians.
Churches have remained open during some of history’s greatest challenges including war, famine and plague. To have our doors closed during a global pandemic goes against a deeply ingrained sense of purpose and calling. While many churches have adapted to online platforms and are reaching many new people, the yearning for personal contact and corporate worship remains.
Our church is in a small town of 14,000 people that borders the bushfire affected communities of East Gippsland. Local people have been hit with a global pandemic on the back of devastating bushfires. We have had no active COVID cases in many weeks. In fact, 40 out of the 48 Local Government Areas across regional Victoria are COVID-free. But despite the low risk, our ability to adapt to COVID safe guidelines, and the great need in our community, our church remains closed. I imagine many other regional pastors feel the same frustration.
It is time the Victorian Government acknowledged that our recovery is not only economic but social, mental, emotional and spiritual. If our communities are to rebuild, our churches must reopen.
This is a guest post by Assistant Pastor Heidi McIvor and Pastor Brian Heath, from City Builders Church in Sale, Victoria.