Odd Church Covid-19 Divide
Law professor Mark Movsesian wonders why the congregations that have filed religious liberty lawsuits against governments barring them from meeting during Covid-19 are almost entirely Evangelicals, not Catholics or Orthodox.
He points out that you might expect otherwise, given the nature of what these rival traditions believe a church service is. Evangelicals put primacy on preaching the Word of God, which is something that can be done online — not ideally, but it can work in a pinch. Catholics and Orthodox believe that the core element of the worship service is receiving Holy Communion, which is something that can only be done in person. With this in mind, you would think Orthodox and Catholics would be leading the charge in courts to restore services. But in fact, the opposite is happening. Why? Excerpts:
It’s not clear why this should be, and the reasons are no doubt complicated, but I’ll offer a couple of possible explanations. First, Evangelical churches tend to be independent. They do not answer to hierarchies that can impose discipline on them, which means they have a certain freedom in deciding how to respond to government action. (It also means they cannot rely on hierarchies to cushion the financial impact of having to close down for a long period). Catholic and Orthodox churches are structured differently and, so far, the hierarchies have been willing to comply with restrictions on gatherings. In Brooklyn, for example, the Catholic Church has ordered a halt to all Masses; a priest who decided to celebrate Mass would no doubt hear from the local bishop. Indeed, the only case of which I am aware in which a non-Evangelical church has brought a constitutional challenge to one of these bans involves a schismatic Catholic parish in New Jersey.
Second, Evangelical culture may be more skeptical of government action, and authority more generally, than Catholic or Orthodox culture. Evangelicals are much more the heirs of the free-church tradition. In addition, especially in recent years, some Evangelicals have come to see themselves as besieged by bureaucrats who wish them no good—in this, Evangelicals sometimes have been correct—and they may see little reason to defer when those bureaucrats tell them they must stop gathering, while shopping malls can remain open. Catholics and Orthodox, by contrast, with their long histories of interconnectedness with state authority, may be less inclined to challenge the state when it says restrictions are necessary in the interests of public health—though that is not always the case.
I think there’s something to what Prof. Movsesian says. In fact, I think he’s completely correct about the hierarchical thing. If everybody in my Orthodox mission parish decided that we should take the government to court, it would go nowhere, because we would have no standing to sue on behalf of the Orthodox Church. According to our ecclesiology, that right rests with the bishop. I’ve been hearing from some Catholic friends reporting that within their congregations, there are people who are furious about the lockdown, who think it’s primarily a government power grab, and who would fight at the drop of a hat. But like us Orthodox, they have no standing in court. That, I think, primarily accounts for the lack of legal action from our churches, versus Evangelical congregations. You have to remember that all of us are Americans, formed by American popular culture. I don’t get the sense that the cultural memory of working with the state is particularly strong here, as opposed to in Europe.
What I can’t figure out, though, is whether my own personal view of the shutdown as a churchgoing Christian is particularly Orthodox, or just particular to me. This requires a bit of explanation.
For one thing, I don’t have any anxiety that the Orthodox Church is going to go away because we can’t meet on Sundays right now. The church has been here for 2000 years; it’s going to make it. I don’t mean to be complacent about our own little parish, which, as a small mission, needs everybody to pull together in a special way in this time. Still, in the long history of the Orthodox Church, which includes ages of persecution by conquering Islam, and Communism, this is barely a blip.
More to the point, Orthodox Christians are accustomed to times of deprivation, and using them for spiritual growth. It’s called fasting. In the Orthodox Church, Lent is a much bigger deal than it is in Western churches (at least in the case of Catholics, Western churches in the post-Vatican II era). The fasting requirement is strong, and the ethos of asceticism, of doing without, as an expression of penitence, is intense. In my case, I have regarded Covidtide as just such a season — an extension of Lent. As an ascetic discipline. This is why Covidtide seems not so abnormal to me as you might think. It is also the case that I don’t receive communion every week. In our church, as in most Orthodox churches (to my knowledge), the priest announces that you are expected to have fasted before communion, and to have had a recent confession — this, in preparation to receive it. Fasting before communion is not hard, but on the occasions when I haven’t been to confession in a few weeks, I don’t receive. So, going for as long as we have gone without receiving communion is painful, but again, our spiritual disciplines teach us to receive this suffering as a trial for spiritual upbuilding.
Finally, this Covid thing is showing me how much spending this past year studying the underground churches of the Soviet bloc has affected my understanding. These were people who had to figure out how to keep the faith under vastly more onerous conditions. Sometimes they couldn’t go to church. Sometimes they didn’t know if their priest or pastor was an informer (one Czech emigre I spoke with told me that growing up in Prague, he learned that a young priest he and other college students had turned to in confidence was in fact an informer; that tore him to bits). If they went to church, in many cases they had to assume that the state would know this, and their lives would be radically altered.
Yesterday, as I was going over my Live Not By Lies manuscript for the last time before turning it in officially, and marking it for footnotes, I found myself once again staggered by the faith of these heroes. Every one of them who was able to endure prison and torture — for years! — did so because they had an attitude of accepting it, and trying to see God’s will in it. For example, this short bit from my book about the incredible Silvester Krcmery, a Slovak Catholic:
“Do not be afraid and always act as you think Christ would act in your place and in a particular situation,” Father Kolakovic had taught his followers. When the secret police arrested Krcmery, he laughed, because he understood that he was being given the gift of suffering for Jesus.
In prison, Krcmery was denied a Bible, and found himself grateful that he had spent the past few years of freedom memorizing Scripture. Like other political prisoners, Krcmery endured repeated tortures. He had been trained to resist brainwashing, in the end, he relied on faith alone to guide his path. The more he surrendered in his weakness, the greater his spiritual strength.
The young doctor decided to unite his suffering with Christ’s, and to offer his pain as a gift to God, for the sake of other persecuted people. He believed that the Lord was allowing him to endure this trial for a reason – but he had to convince himself in the face of his agonies.
“Therefore I repeated again and again: ‘I am really God’s probe, God’s laboratory. I’m going through all this so I can help others, and the Church.”
Dr. Krcmery, and all these others, have been front to mind during Covidtide. I have tried to ask, of myself and of the churches, what God wants us to learn from this particular suffering. I assume, as Dr. Krcmery and the others all did, that God is allowing us to endure this trial so we can learn to rely on him more. More from my book:
In his 1996 memoir This Saved Us, Krcmery recalls that after repeated beatings, torture and interrogations, he realized that the only way he would make it through the ordeal ahead was to rely entirely on faith, not reason. He says he decided to be “like Peter, to close my eyes and throw myself into the sea.”
“In my case, it truly was to plunge into physical and spiritual uncertainty, an abyss, where only faith in God could guarantee safety,” he writes. “Material things which mankind regarded as certainties were fleeting and illusory, while faith, which the world considered to be ephemeral, was the most reliable and the most powerful of foundations.
“The more I depended on faith, the stronger I became.”
Personally, I have tried let the experiences of these brave men and women inform my response to this Covid trial. If we can’t make it through this without losing our heads, we are not going to be able to make it through actual persecution. It is possible that this attitude is too passive, and that we ought to be in court fighting. It’s possible that our churches are too tame. I don’t think so, because I don’t believe the virus is a political construct. It’s real, and the threat is real. I am eager to get our churches back open, but not at the expense of putting the weakest among our congregation at risk.
I see Covidtide as a dry run for a future time of living under persecution, when Christians aren’t allowed to meet for worship. The strategies we develop now, including the internal strategies of bearing with deprivation without falling apart, are going to be very important in the decades to come. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to go to court to push for the right to open up again. But I am saying that if that’s the only response you, as a Christian, have to this long coronavirus Lent, then you are missing a very important opportunity for necessary spiritual growth.
UPDATE: Reader Rhys Laverty, an Evangelical seminarian in England, offers a really insightful comment:
I think one element of the evangelical response is that, beholden as evangelicals are to “seeker-sensitivity”, evangelical services are often underscored by a palpable anxiety that people might stop listening. That anxiety has probably increased under lockdown.
You rightly point out that, in theory, evangelical churches should deal with online church better than other groups, because of the centrality of preaching. But preachers and service leaders are anxious at the best of times about keeping people’s attention, and that’s now a LOT harder when people are in their own homes and don’t have to worry about people shooting them a sideways glance for checking their phone. Evangelical churches have spent decades trying to make their services feel like visitors are sat in their own living rooms. Now, that’s exactly what everyone has. Why would they come back?
Such an anxiety doesn’t dog churches where the celebration of the Eucharist is central – partly because, as you say, Rome, the East, and even historic Reformed churches have a more palpable sense of enduring through the ages, due to their institutional history. Their sense of memory and identity is long and thick. Low-church evangelicals, however, rarely have a sense of history older than their pastor, oldest member, or building. For them, a sense of memory and identity is short and thin. When you’re the last in, you always live in the knowledge you might be first out.
But more liturgical churches are, I think, less bothered about being closed because what is central isn’t preaching and whether or not it’s being listened to, but the Eucharist and whether or not it’s being celebrated. In some sense, it doesn’t matter if people are there receiving it. It is happening, and that’s what matters.