Coronavirus forces Eastern Cape churches to rethink aspects of faith

A Sunday concert at Stockholm’s Katarina Church is played before no audience and streamed live over the internet after Swedish government introduced measures forbidding gathering of more than 500 people
ALTERNATIVE WORSHIPPING: A Sunday concert at Stockholm’s Katarina Church is played before no audience and streamed live over the internet after Swedish government introduced measures forbidding gathering of more than 500 people

It is not yet an existential crisis, but measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 are causing religious groups to rethink the foundational aspects of their faith.

Globally and in local faith communities, prayer gatherings and worship services have shrunk or been cancelled,  age-old practices have been redesigned, accoutrements used in religious rituals sanitised.

Pope Francis has delivered his weekly blessing to an empty St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the independent state in the heart of Rome, a ritual which typically attracts huge audiences.

He has been seen alone in his private residence, from where his daily mass has been livestreamed to the faithful.

Jewish souls and Hindu temples have been closed.

Catholic and Anglican churches have not yet stopped services but have indicated they will comply with government’s 100-person limit on gatherings.

Anglican dean of Makhanda Andrew Hunter said the measures adopted by the government had created a crisis for many in the church.

For some, he said, gathering for worship was a vital part of their wellbeing.

“They ask: ‘What are we if we do not meet for Sunday worship?’”

Catholic bishop of Mthatha Sithembele Sipuka, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the church would adhere to the limit on congregation size.

Safer measures would be put in place for administering sacraments and anointing of the sick, with blessings by placing of hands and other rituals being suspended and prudence exercised.

DispatchLIVE columnist Bantu Mniki, a member of the Kholo Kingdom Mission Centre in Dutywa, said many Christian congregations had not yet grasped the seriousness of the threat facing the country.

Mniki emphasised he was not speaking on behalf of his own church, but as an interested observer of the church’s response to the crisis.

“Congregations regard the words of their pastors and own members much more importantly than the views of others. We need a bigger commitment.”

A statement from the Anglican diocese of Makhanda, which includes Buffalo City and large parts of the hinterland, said church “services will continue” as they are “especially important at this time”.

Apart from hygiene measures, the statement reiterates advice by Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba on how rituals such as sharing of the peace and communion must be handled at services.

But Anglican bishop in Port Elizabeth Eddie Daniels took the more “drastic action” of stopping all public services in that diocese after Sunday’s gatherings which will be used to communicate with congregations.

Daniels said “it cannot be church as usual” and the diocese believed it was better for the church “to err on the side of caution rather than under-reacting”.

In PE, baptisms would be done in emergencies only and funeral services were to include only immediate family members of the deceased.

Marius Gradwell of Abbotsford Christian Centre in East London said his congregation would not meet at the centre. Instead, congregants would be encouraged to open their homes as gathering places for small groups , regardless of their religious affiliation.

He said this was a modern-day symbol of the early church’s “scattering” from meeting in a large place to meeting in the homes of adherents. “The idea is to bring hope and encouragement,” said Gradwell.

All local church leaders have focused on the role of religious leaders to provide encouragement, support and guidance to the vulnerable.

The Grahamstown diocese warned that “isolation is difficult for most of us”, while Makgoba said on Thursday: “At no time is ministry — and the presence of those who minister — more critical than at times like these.”

Church leaders have also said that adopting measures to counter the virus did not signal a lack of faith.

Daniels said: “We are and remain a people of faith and hope.”