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Open Bunnings, Closed Church on Maundy Thursday

Thursday, 9 April 2020  | Paul Tyson

When one is feeling a bit locked in, and going a bit stir crazy trying to ‘work from home’ with the kids doing their usual amiable sibling warfare (but now 24/7), one tends to notice all those odd jobs about the house one has been putting off for, well, about 20 years. So it was at precisely nine o’clock in the morning on Maundy Thursday, in the religiously quietest Holy Week in Australia since white settlement, when the ‘towel-rack’ precariously ‘located’ on the back of the sliding door to our tiny en-suite fell off for the 100,000th time. In a fit of decisive action, I wrenched the door off, finally got it out of the en-suite and laid it on the operating table in the carport. Hmm… this needs a trip to Bunnings, I thought. But given that church was shut, the police were breaking-up gatherings of one or more hobo in their usual inner city locations and only ‘essential services’ (like fly-in-fly-out miners) were operative, would I find Bunnings shut?

At 9.30 Maundy Thursday morning I discovered that the carpark at our local Bunnings was almost parked out. Every man and his dog (quite a few dogs actually) were there, with a liberal quantity of over-60 males among them. We all had about 4 cubic metres of personal air space directly above us, and the prescribed 1.5 meter social distancing was carefully regulated at the check-out line, but, essentially, the place was packed. I bought my piece of timber, my towel-rack and my Araldite, swam out to the car, negotiated the traffic jam to escape the death-star like inertial pull of Bunnings and went home to fix my door.

What a very strange Holy Week.

It seems that when the government decided that church could no longer meet, there was not even a whimper of protest from our ecclesial leaders. This quiet compliance is a bit astonishing considering the shutdown came when we were approaching the most important time in the Christian calendar. As far as I know there was not even an attempt by our church leaders to negotiate with the government to allow reasonable social distancing precautions for, at the very least, Easter services. Many of our church gatherings are done in cavernous rooms of far larger crowd capacity than the size of the faithful gathered within, so technical feasibility seems high. At least as high as Bunnings. But ‘keeping the churches open’ negotiations do not seem to have occurred to anyone. This is a strangely revealing moment. What does it say about us as a nation when Bunnings is in full flight, but church is shut?

The first thing it says is that Christians, in practice, fully agree with secular and official Australia that our meeting together as Christians is not essential. We also seem to agree that making sure we can fix a broken gutter is essential. That is, religion is considered – even by Christians, even by our ecclesial leaders – as a spiritual matter that has no relevance to down-to-earth real-life necessities. Further, we seem to agree that religion is an optional and individual venture, and church is a religious add-on to that ‘deeply personal’ concern, that we can take or leave. That is, church is not seen as religiously essential, and religion is not seen as essential, but shopping at Bunnings obviously is important. And of course, public health trumps religion, because physical life and death is far more important than the health of anyone’s soul. Besides, how would anyone know what a healthy soul is? But we can measure whether someone is sick or not, and Bunnings and home renovating obviously have economic and locked-in sanity benefits.

I wonder if we are Christians at all in Australia. I wonder if anyone will bother going back to church once it is legal to do so.

Imagine if Australia’s religious leaders had said to our various local, state and national authorities: we appreciate the public health needs of our times, but the spiritual needs of Australians are essential needs and we need to negotiate with you as to how we can be safe and gather for worship. Imagine firstly that all sides had been reasonable and a workable settlement (like shopping at Bunnings) had been worked out. All would have been good. But imagine that our government authorities decided that whilst Bunnings remains essential, church is simply too much of a health risk, particularly for older Australians, and it is of no economic and social necessity (unlike Bunnings) so, apologies to all, it must be shut down. Then imagine our ecclesial leaders followed St Paul’s example and saying – in one voice – you be the judge, oh Australian government, whether we should obey you or God. But we are going to take social distancing precautions and run church anyway. What would have happened then? Would we have seen mass arrests of clergy and Christians? Of course not – for those very arrests would have constituted a public health risk disproportionate to the danger of the gathered worshippers. And despite the enormous demographic drop-off in post-war church attendance, this February there were still more Australians who gathered on just one Sunday than spectated at all live AFL games last year. We are not as post-Christian a nation as we tend to assume (at least in simply numerical terms). If we had gone to church as an act of carefully calibrated civil disobedience, the church would have stood its ground against the state and won. I am not suggesting the church promote reckless public health risks, just that it should at least be worthy of the same basic public good rights and responsibilities as Bunnings.

But there was no attempt by our church leaders to negotiate some form of safe public worship with the state. We simply did what we were told. We simply agreed that we (and God) are not in any sense essential, and we will obey Man rather than God if any sort of real choice of first allegiance between the two pops up. As Michael Budde has pointed out, we largely expect the Church to be the chaplain of the modern State. We expect the church will bless our governments, lend a sacred sheen to the economic and sovereignty aims of the modern nation state, and uphold the law of the land at all times. And it is probably the case that we expect that church will hold the same human flourishing values – material prosperity, physical health and individual freedom of belief as regards all ‘deeply personal’ matters – as liberal consumer society in general.

We have seen what a safety conscious, civil authority respecting, nationalistically compliant church is like, in living memory. My mother-in-law was born in 1925 in Germany, the daughter of a Baptist pastor; a good law-abiding, civil authority respecting family. And complicity ignorant regarding the horrors of the Nazi regime. There is much for us to think over when we consider an open Bunnings and closed Church on Maundy Thursday.

Paul Tyson is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Queensland.

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