Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them. Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural. One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings. The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions. The church I attend has gone to virtual services. In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on. Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.
Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments. We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians. They defied government orders and sometimes died for it. Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place. I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services. At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before. And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.
We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday. An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection. Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park. Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings. We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor. It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light. It’s a wonder and a source of awe. And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.