Social distancing rules may not be the main challenge which faces the Christian Churches once lockdown is eased and worship can actually take place within buildings.
The real challenge for the Christian Churches in the so-called ‘new normal’ will be which traditions will remain, and which traditions will have to be either re-defined or dumped altogether.
I’ve mentioned in past columns my battles with the ‘tut-tut brigade’ in churches over my dress codes as a Presbyterian minister’s son. Ironically, in the ‘new normal’, church dress code will probably be one of the issues which will face the most debate.
With places of worship closed on Sundays and drive-in services only beginning again within the past couple of weeks, during lockdown the online church witnessed a massive explosion in interest.
Because the church buildings were physically closed, churches were forced to develop their online outlets as Sunday worship, Bible studies and even children’s stories all had to be delivered remotely. In the overwhelming number of cases, dress codes were totally relaxed.
Church goers could watch Sunday worship from the comfort of their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. There was no need for men to don their ‘Sunday best suits’ or women to have their heads covered as who could see you? You could even sit in your pyjamas on Sunday mornings and enjoy your pastor, cleric or priest deliver their sermon!
The net result was that interest in church worship rocketed across Ireland. On an island which was witnessing steadily falling Sunday attendances in many of the major Christian denominations pre-lockdown, suddenly online worship became a significant attraction.
In practical terms, once lockdown is extensively eased or stopped, one of the main challenges to such churches will be how they will retain the vast online congregations; will they be able to convert online ‘bums on sofas’ to ‘bums on pews’? Indeed, some churches which had an average Sunday morning attendance in the pews of around 100 people enjoyed lockdown attendances online of up to 3,000. While the street preacher may now be an element of the religious past in modern Ireland, the online evangelist is now a major factor in 2020 church life.
But when the churches eventually re-open, will the dress code be relaxed to allow the online audience to become actual worshipping participants? Covid 19 may have seen the mushrooming of the virtual Church, but it may also have sounded the death knell for the so-called ‘hat brigade’ in Christian fundamentalism.
Even before the pandemic, the ‘hat brigade’ influence in churches in Ireland was starting to be steadily eroded. The ‘hat brigade’ is a reference to male fundamentalists who adhere strictly to the Biblical New Testament verses that a woman should have her head covered at all times when in church or a place of worship.
At one time in Ireland, certain Faith Mission halls, Brethren Gospel Halls, Baptist churches and churches within the late Rev Dr Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian denomination championed the cause of the ‘hat brigade’.
The key question which the ‘hat brigade’ still has to answer is - how many people were put off getting involved with Christianity because of the puritan activities of the ‘hat brigade’?
Its at this point that ironically the words of the famous Indian Hindu nationalist Mahatma Gandhi are most relevant: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Many of us Christians - myself included - can at times represent the worst about our Christian faith. But the ‘hat brigade’ is a law unto itself!
A few quotes from my own spiritual journey will emphasise both the dilemma which the ‘hat brigade’ posed, and how the modern 2020 Church is moving forward without diluting the Christian Gospel.
In 1996, my wife and I wanted to join a certain Baptist church. We were both ‘born again’ believers; we both had been through adult baptism; we had been interviewed by a delegation from that particular Baptist church and deemed spiritually suitable to join.
We were given a date in November 1996 when we would receive the Right Hand of Fellowship - a public welcoming into membership of that particular church.
We were seated at the front waiting to receive the Right Hand of Fellowship. It was publicly refused as my wife does not wear a hat to church. It was one of the most embarrassing episodes of my Christian journey - publicly humiliated in front of the congregation.
I’m sure these Baptist fundamentalists can find verses of Script to justify my wife not receiving the Right Hand of Fellowship, but where in the Bible does it state that the husband of a woman who does not have her head covered should be refused membership of a church?
Eventually, an elder wrote to us in mid-February 1997 asking for a meeting, stating:
It would not be out intention to argue or dictate but to discuss reasonably a position which, although not enshrined in our Basis of Doctrine, is sincerely held to be in accordance with the Word of God.
It was pointless having such a meeting as the view of the elder was clearly - ‘no hat, no handshake’! It was a clear victory for the ‘hat brigade.’
However, 23 years later that same church seemed to have adopted an entirely different stance. Was it a practical change in terms of preparing for a post lockdown society, or a theological shift?
As part of my journalistic research for article and my Call In Coulter religious radio show into how evangelism will be developed in a post lockdown society, I decided this month to write to the present leadership of that specific church.
I posed this question via email:
If a born again Christian (as defined by St John 3: 16) wished to become a member (of your church); had gone through the Waters of Baptism; been interviewed by elders and the application approved; does the woman still have to wear a hat or have her head covered during the Right Hand of Fellowship ceremony?
That same day I received this email from the church pastor:
Though each person applying for membership would be individually considered by the elders and the Church for membership to hear their testimony and make sure they are in agreement with the Church Constitution and rules of membership.
There is no requirement for a woman to cover her head to attend a service, take communion or receive the right hand of fellowship in (the named church) and there hasn’t been any such requirement in my time at the Church.
Head covering is left as a matter of conscience for each individual and there are women in membership in the Church who cover their head and women in membership in the Church who do not.
Comparing the February 1997 stance with the June 2020 response, it can be suggested that the ‘hat brigade’ has lost ground in this specific church. I am fully aware the ‘hat brigade’ can respond by stating that - in the words of the secular proverb - ‘one swallow does not make a summer’!
What cannot be in doubt is that with the easing, even ending, of lockdown, many Christian places of worship will be faced with dealing with a whole new set of challenges in terms of those physically coming to churches.
While the Gospel message of Salvation through Jesus Christ can never be compromised in terms of theology, many churches at the same time will face severe challenges to traditional rituals and ceremonies.
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com