On the 8th January 2021 Ramzi Adcock, our executive minister, wrote this to everyone on the JPC mailing list:
“The current situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is serious. The Government has asked us to stay at home to save lives and protect the NHS. Under the current regulations, the Government has permitted public worship to continue, if it is safe to do so. The Church of England urges churches "to be exceptionally cautious". There is of course good news regarding vaccinations, but the NHS is on the verge of being overwhelmed and we are yet to see the full impact of the mixing over Christmas and the new variant.
We are therefore pausing our in-person services for this Sunday 10th January and reconsidering the 17th January. We are committed to doing what we can 'in-person' as well as continuing to providing online provision. We need time to assess what is best and we'll keep you informed. Of course, the church has not stopped and we continue to meet together online. Can I take this opportunity to remind you that each week we post out DVDs of the full services, audio CDs (containing songs, readings, and sermon) and sermon transcripts – please let us know if you would like those. We also have the equipment and people willing to help you access online services and zoom – so please get in touch so we can help get you set up if you'd like that.”
So, on the 14th January the PCC Standing Committee met to discuss what we believed was the right thing to do in the current situation – to continue to pause, or to go ahead with in-Person services. This was after the Senior Staff Team had met the previous day to discuss the situation. As members of the church will know from Jon Teasdale’s email, we have decided to pause in-person services this Sunday (the 17th) together with the next two, (24th and 31st January) and then review the situation on Thursday 4th February. As someone said to me, this is “a 55-45 issue”. It is so hard to decide. But thank God that he does guide us in difficult finely balanced situations; and thank God the Government is not imposing a blanket lock-down on all churches. It has allowed the local churches to decide what is appropriate for them. So, after we decided, it was interesting to hear about another larger Anglican evangelical church in the North and what Christ Church, Fulwood, in Sheffield, decided. They report:
“The in-person services have been suspended for the time being. Given the increasing risk posed by gathering in person and the huge strain the NHS is under, we feel this is the most loving decision to take in the short term. Please be assured that we will continue to review this decision and we will look to restart our in-person services as soon as circumstances allow.”
That is our position almost exactly. Also, we have learnt that St Thomas’s, Haymarket (Newcastle upon Tyne) have decided to pause. It is simply the case that Christians cannot ignore the Government’s advice and requests. For Paul is emphatic (and probably writing under Nero) when he writes:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13.1,3).
The Wider World
So, unless the governing authorities forbid what God plainly orders or orders what God plainly forbids (Acts 5.29), we need to heed their strong advice and requests. Regarding our local leaders, the BBC this past week reported seven council leaders as saying:
"The position we find ourselves in may be better than in other parts of the country, but we still have a long way to go. If we are to avoid some of the scenes we've seen in London and elsewhere, with hospitals reaching capacity with Covid-19 patients, we must continue do everything we can to limit the spread of the virus. There is always a delay between the point of infection and people requiring hospital treatment if they become seriously ill, so we cannot afford to let our guard down."
The leaders statement also added that the new more infectious strain of the virus accounted for roughly half of all cases in the region including in Gateshead, Sunderland and North Tyneside. And they concluded:
"as Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty outlined, reducing your social contact with others remains vital and by following the guidance we can all do our bit to protect our communities.”
A further consideration is Jesus saying, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5.16). Also, Paul told Timothy he “must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3.7). So, with many “outsiders” having made huge sacrifices of income and even going bankrupt through shutting down to control the virus, will they “give glory to God” when we don’t pause, especially when we have services and other meetings on line?
Abraham Lincoln Proclamation
But while we were having to weigh all the pros and cons this week, we’ve been reading in staff prayers the book of Amos. And in chapter 4 we are told how the ancient people of Israel had been experiencing, one after the other, famine, drought, crop failures, plagues (as in Egypt) and destruction (as with Sodom and Gomorrah). But after each disaster is the fivefold refrain: “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4.6,8,9,10 and 11). However, during the week I came across, in a letter, the US President, Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 30 March 1863 (two years after the founding of JPC) establishing a National Day of Prayer in the middle of the US Civil War. And Lincoln doesn’t try to deal with any of the conflict issues. For he sees one thing necessary above all, as you can see. I quote:
“Whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God: to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And as inasmuch as we know that by his divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of the civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God [italics mine]. We have forgotten the gracious hand, which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God who made us.
It behoves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power; to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness. All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
With the “Civil War” changed for “Covid”, is that not a challenge to the secularized world of 2021, once Christian, now “God forgetting”? Is it not us, Christian believers, who need to take the initiative? More to follow!.