Yesterday Illinois Gov Pritzker extended the stay at home order to May 30. Although some modifications were announced such as allowing some business and state parks to reopen, noticeable in its absence was any mention of churches. Consistent with the original stay at home order issued on March 20, church services continue to be excluded from “essential businesses and operations” that are permitted.
I was supportive of obeying this direction when it first came out. I was not pleased by the fact that church services were classified as “non-essential.” However in the context of concerns about the spread of the contagious Covid-19, the order seemed to be directed at protecting public health and not at restricting the proclamation of God’s Word. On March 20 I wrote to the members of Good Shepherd and said:
This is a matter of the Fourth Commandment and Romans 13 in which we obey those in the vocation of civil government. Because this order has the goal of promoting the health and well being of the residents of the state, and is not intended to restrict the proclamation of the Gospel, it is something that we can faithfully obey.
However, a month later several factors lead me now to conclude that as a Christian I can no longer accept this prohibition of church services. First, the order is based on a distinction between what is “essential” and “not essential.” Having seen this in actual practice for a month I have learned that alcohol stores, adult marijuana dispenseries, and home improvement stores like Menards and Home Depot are considered essential, while the Divine Service at Church is not. In Marion, these businesses and many others such as Krogers, Walmart, Target, Dollar Tree, etc. continue to operate with limited adjustments related to spacing and the number of people in the store. If all of these different businesses can operate with appropriate adjustments, why can’t the church? There is a reward vs. risk calculation made in going to any of these businesses. Shouldn’t we as Christians be allowed to make the same assessment about receiving the Means of Grace? Why can the state of Illinois tell us that we can’t, when it is allowed in all of these other settings? Other states, such as Indiana, have included religious gatherings among essential activities that are permitted. The fact that Illinois has not, while allowing other activities such as alcohol stores, adult marijuana dispenseries, and home improvement stores, is an example of religious discrimination.
The second reason is that Marion is not Chicago. As of today, out of the 36,934 confirmed cases in Illinois and 1,688 deaths, there have been 17 cases in Williamson county and 0 deaths. As State Senator Fowler has correctly observed, there is simply not the same threat in our area of southern Illinois and it does not makes sense that our activity should be guided by a decision made based upon the situation in Chicago and its suburbs. This is not a responsible use of authority by the state.
A church practice currently used by many congregations that limits services to ten people, spaces people out in the sanctuary, and sanitizes after each service meets the same necessary level of accommodation for the sake of safety. As Lutherans, we believe that reception of the Means of Grace is essential for the life of faith. The true body and blood of Jesus Christ holds a unique place among the Means of Grace in our piety as it is the high point of the Divine Service. We confess that “the Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened and that it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses” (Large Catechism, 5.24-26). We believe that the Sacrament is not merely an aid in the “spiritual” but also in the physical: “We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine that aids you and gives life in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body is helped as well” (5.68)
I believe churches were correct to abide by the Illinois order when it first came out. Now that we have seen how things actually work, and that upcoming adjustments do not include church activities, the discriminatory character is clear. The time has come for the churches in Illinois to demonstrate by their actions that the church services are essential. Church service are not less essential than the many things that are still allowed, and we can make adjustments to meet the needs of safety.