No hugging or singing allowed when churches reopen

SACC members gird for services under lockdown rules

31 May 2020 - 00:00 By ZIMASA MATIWANE and S'THEMBILE CELE
Sanitising is under way at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Athlone, Cape Town, in preparation for the resumption of services under level 3. Members of the South African Council of Churches have pledged to take strict health precautions. Picture: Esa Alexander
Sanitising is under way at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Athlone, Cape Town, in preparation for the resumption of services under level 3. Members of the South African Council of Churches have pledged to take strict health precautions. Picture: Esa Alexander

No hugs or singing will be allowed when denominations affiliated to the South African Council of Churches (SACC) resume religious gatherings - and there'll be no long-winded sermons.

Hymn books and Bibles will be removed from pews, congregants will have to wear face masks, confessions will take place outside and communion wafers will be dispensed with gloves - but there will be no communion wine.

The planned health precautions include a one-hour time limit on the duration of services, which should mean sermons will be short and sweet.

Churches are allowed to resume services under level 3 of the lockdown, which starts tomorrow, but SACC general secretary Malusi Mpumlwana said council members had set themselves strict standards to meet.

Because of this, some churches could take up to three months before they were ready to open their doors.

"We are not expecting any of our member churches to open just yet," Mpumlwana told the Sunday Times.

"We take this government decision as a signal for member churches to start preparing and identifying those churches that can open and those that cannot open at all."

Earlier this month, the SACC wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa, co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu, appealing for churches to be allowed to resume services.

Among other things, the council said churches were struggling financially because collection-plate income had dried up.

The SACC, which has a history of strong ties with the ANC, asked in its letter that:

  • Churches be eligible for the government financial relief that has been offered to struggling businesses;
  • Municipalities consider giving churches a rates and taxes holiday;
  • Pastors be considered as essential service workers; and
  • Churches be allowed to self-regulate during the lockdown period.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule confirmed that the churches had also approached the party with their requests.

Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko said the government agreed to ease restrictions on churches "after having considered all their submissions and in line with the risk-adjusted approach".

Diko said the government was considering all the issues raised, including those for various forms of financial relief.

We take this government decision as a signal for member churches to start preparing and identifying those churches that can open and those that cannot open at all.
SACC general secretary Malusi Mpumlwana

In the letter to Ramaphosa and his ministers, Mpumlwana said it was wrong to think of churches as being less important than the business sector. "The main source of church income is contributions from members," the letter said. "Without Sunday offerings, congregations are feeling the financial strain from being closed."

Mpumlwana said members of the clergy had made sacrifices such as waiving allowances and postponing salary increases.

He told the Sunday Times that the health precautions churches would take included keeping a register of those who attend services and having medical workers check congregants for symptoms at the door.

One of the non-SACC leaders who attended the interfaith virtual meeting with Ramaphosa earlier this month, Nokuzola Mndende, director of the Icamagu Institute, said his group had not made presentations of its own.

"Various religious groups operate differently and do different things, therefore you cannot make decisions based on what the SACC [has presented] . the SACC does not represent all churches," he said. - Additional reporting by Zingisa Mvumvu


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