By Patrick O. Okigbo III
Alfred Adewale Martins, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, has used many of his Sunday sermons to argue for the reopening of places of worship. The worship centres were closed in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Watching the Archbishop make his points is like watching a trapeze artist walk a high wire; he does not want to appear as pitching the state against the church.
The Archbishop has made some excellent arguments. Like the World Health Organisation, he understands that health is not merely the absence of disease but the complete package of physical, mental and psychological wellbeing. According to Emeke (1991)1, religion helps Nigerians cope with stress. Francis & Kaldor (2002)2 present evidence that mental wellbeing has a strong relationship with belief in God, personal prayer, church attendance.
But the arguments have not worked. This failure is because the Catholic church in Lagos has not shown sufficient reverence for the novel coronavirus. The church has failed to observe the Guidelines stipulated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control for reopening of places of worship. For instance, “All attendees and religious leaders must wear a face mask.” Neither the Archbishop nor the other officiating priests have ever worn a mask while celebrating mass on television.
“Religious centres should be clearly marked such that people sit and maintain two metres distance from each other”. While the few worshippers in the church (during the televised mass) maintain sufficient physical distance, there are no markings on the pews to indicate readiness to receive the congregation should the lockdown be lifted. Such action will indicate the readiness of the church to be reopened to the public.
“Attendance at religious settings should not exceed one-third of sitting capacity”. The church has not communicated how she intends to meet this guideline. Would the selection be through a lottery system, or is it on a first-come, first-served basis?
“Practices that require sharing of materials should be limited”. The Thurible, which is a metal censer for burning incense during a Catholic mass, is still handled by both the Mass Servers, Archbishop, and the priests without regards to the risk of transmission. Holy Communion is still handled by the priests and handed to the congregation to eat. There is no visible display of handwashing or use of hand sanitisers during the mass. Meanwhile, thousands of the faithfuls are probably watching the mass on television.
The Archbishop is not the only one losing out in this debate. Many of the leaders of the Pentecostal churches are not doing themselves or the Christian Church any favours. Bishop David Oyedepo has not shown sufficient reverence for the virus. Some of the other religious leaders have taken the position that the COVID-19 pandemic is a scam and have publicly sown doubts on the reality of the novel coronavirus. Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who has millions of followers all over Africa, ascribed the deaths to the effect of 5G technology. Quite regrettable.
President Muhammadu Buhari has not helped matters either. Like his colleague, Donald Trump, he has refused to be seen in public wearing a facemask. While we understand that Trump does not want to be seen as weak or lending credence to the COVID-19 scare, it is still not clear why President Buhari has taken the same position. The President’s Special Assistant on Social Media claims that he does not need the mask because he is in a safe environment. What is clear is that when such leaders fail to wear their facemasks, they plant doubts in the minds of their people. Optics matter.
The arguments by the religious leaders for reopening the places of worship have not worked, so it is time for them to “show-all-workings”. A good place to start is to assume that many of the people who will attend the service have the virus and they should demonstrate the measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Nothing should be taken for granted. The plan should be such that Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Governor of Lagos, can see that the necessary safeguards and protocols are in place.
Are the religious leaders willing to “take responsibility” for ensuring strict adherence to the protocols? The religious leaders can easily win this debate if they covenant to be personally responsible for anyone who contacts the virus from their place of worship. Liability, in this case, should be, at the minimum, that the religious organisations will pay a significant fine to the victim or their family. This recommendation, while harsh recognises the gravity of the battle the world is fighting.
It is also possible that religious organisations may not win this debate. There is still a lot of unknowns about the virus so serious governments would err on the side of caution. As a result, religious organisations should leverage technology to deliver their services. While not the same as in-person interactions, it may be the best option for now. Religious organisations should also become comfortable with the fact that things may never go back to “normal”. Mindful of the fact that science and faith are strange bedfellows, it is also prudent for religious organisations to brace themselves for a new reality that includes more pandemics in the coming future. This reality is enough to cause a rethink of old norms and the adoption of new ways of worship.