As creatures of habit, we often fall into patterns of behaviour without stopping to evaluate why we act as we do. The COVID19 pandemic has wrought havoc upon centuries of human behaviour patterns on a global scale. It has caused the church of Jesus Christ to stop and ask, why do we physically gather together? The answers to this question are found in our constitutional document, the Bible. An examination of the scriptures reveals that gathering physically as a church body is not merely for the purposes of placating our social preferences. Rather, the gathering of believers of Jesus is essential due to i) the spiritual unity of believers of Jesus as a central element to the profession of the Christian faith and ii) the requirement to join together to worship the holy, creator God of the Universe. If gathering is truly essential for the exercise of the Christian faith, what, if anything, does the Irish constitution have to say about it?
Gathering in the Christian faith
Throughout this global pandemic, various measures have been employed to stem the spread of the virus. In doing so, governments have sought to limit human interactions, reducing our access to anything but ‘essential services’. Amongst these measures, the church has not made the cut as an ‘essential service.’ Is gathering in person a fundamental aspect of the practice of the Christian faith? To find the answer, we must examine the scriptures.
(i) The Relational God
a. The relationship between God & mankind
The notion of the ‘Trinity’ is a profound mystery, central to Christian faith and doctrine. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, records the creation of the world itself. God in designing and fashioning His magnificent creation said, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26 NIV). The notion of God himself is intrinsically relational.
In Christian doctrine, Jesus of Nazareth, a man it is historically accepted walked this earth over 2000 years ago, is believed to be a physical representation of one of the Godhead. Here, another profound mystery. God, writing himself into the story of his creation. God, being born as a baby, growing up in a lower-class neighbourhood, the son of a carpenter, and later, an itinerant preacher. This relational God ultimately related to mankind by divesting himself of his glory and becoming one of us. This perfect God became “acquainted” with suffering (Is 53:3 KJV), and able to identify with our every trial and temptation. This God became a man because he desires relationship with us.
The message of the cross is one of reconciliation, a broken relationship between a perfect God and sinful mankind is restored as God himself in the form of Jesus, paid the ultimate sacrifice for mankind’s wrongdoing, or ‘sin’ as he died upon a cross.
The Bible claims that “God is love”. Love is best expressed through a complete sacrificial giving up of one’s life for another, and most potently demonstrated by Jesus’ death on the cross. 1 John 4:9-10 (NIV) reads: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Christianity at its core is a relational faith. Jesus came to earth and died so that we, mankind, could have relationship with God.
b. The relationship between followers of Jesus
Jesus gave up everything so that relationship between God and man could be restored. A natural result of his work of restoration extended to the restoration of the relationship from one man to another. Mankind through our sinful nature tends towards divisiveness and selfishness. Jesus’ call to all those who follow him was to serve each other like he served his followers (John 13:1-17). His desire was for his followers to be in unity with one another (John 17:20-23). 1 John 4:11 (NIV) (referenced in (a) above) continues to entreat: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
The gospel of John records how Jesus, before he went to the cross, prayed for those who would later believe in him, that they would be “one” (John 17:20-21 NIV). Paul, the author of a large proportion of the New Testament entreated the early followers of Jesus to “make every effort to keep yourselves united.” (Ephesians 4:3 NLT)
The example of the Trinity is one of perfect relationship and unity. It is the template for Christian living and for the church. The very expression of Christianity at its core is believers in close spiritual relationship with one another, a close spiritual relationship that transcends barriers of race, gender, social background or any other dividing wall mankind may seek to erect. This close spiritual relationship is made possible because God related to us in the form of Jesus and paid the price for our sin so we could become more like him. Now, when we follow him, we learn how to relate to each other through his supernatural love. This spiritual unity is expressed also through physically joining together to worship God and hear the proclamation of the word of God (the Bible), as explored in the next section.
(ii.) The corporate worship of the God of the Universe
The God of the Bible is a relational God, but he is also a majestic God. He is eternal, omnipotent, uncreated and all-knowing. He is infinitely superior to every created thing and is worthy of mankind’s utter devotion and worship. The very act of God himself coming to earth and taking the penalty that each one of us deserved for our sins renders him worthy of our eternal thanksgiving, adoration and worship. But what form should that worship take? Why must it consist in Christians coming together in a physical unified location and singing and preaching from the Bible?
The Old Testament sets out God’s relationship with his chosen people, Israel. God gave his people instructions about the dwelling he was to inhabit with his presence - a temple. This was a central place where the people would come to present sacrifices and offerings to God. It was a central meeting point, where worship through the form of singing and musical instruments took place led by priests, that is, the spiritual leaders of the community.
In the New Testament, the followers of Jesus became known as the church and the notion of ‘corporate worship’ of God was central to their very existence and growth. Though no longer bound by all of the Old Testament laws as the people of Israel were, God’s people continued to come together physically and worship God. The book of Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV) entreats believers to not give up the habit of meeting together.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Singing as a form of worship to God is core to the Christian faith. Colossians 3:16 (ESV) entreats the believers to meet together and encourage each other in the truth, singing songs with thankfulness to God: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing palms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
There are numerous commands to sing to God in corporate gatherings throughout the Bible. Here are just a few:
Psalm 149:1 (NKJV): Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, and his praise in the assembly of the saints.
Psalm 66:1-4 (NIV): Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing the praises of your name”.
Psalm 66:8 (NIV): Praise our God, all peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard […]
Psalm 67:3-5 (NIV): May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth. May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.
Psalm 35:18 (NIV): I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you.
Psalm 22:22 (NIV): I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
Psalm 107:32 (NIV): Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.
Psalm 34:3 (NIV): Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.
Hebrews 12:28-29 (NIV): Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
The word ‘preaching’ has negative connotations in our modern society. But preaching is central to the Christian faith. It entails a statement or declaration of the truth and it is the vehicle through which the good news of Jesus Christ is publicised in the world. It involves a proclamation of the seminal truth of Christianity, known as the gospel. It also involves a proclamation of the truth in order to encourage, build up and at times rebuke the body of believers in Jesus.
Jesus’ parting words to his disciples was to command them to go forth and preach the good news to the whole creation (Mark 16:15).
Preaching within the church is an essential part of the gathering of Christians, demonstrated in the following scriptures:
1 Timothy 4:13: devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV): Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV): All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness
Romans 10:14 (NIV): How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
Corporate worship in spiritual unity is an essential expression of the outpouring of reverence and devotion of a people submitted to a holy and perfect God. Preaching is the response to the command of God to i) spread the message of the gospel so that mankind may hear and be saved and ii) encourage the body of those who already believe to grow in their faith. The physical coming together of Christians for these activities is essential to the practice of the Christian faith.
2. Constitutional protections of the freedom of religion
The global COVID19 pandemic took the world by surprise. Governments scrambled to come to terms with the scientific reality of the spread of the virus and felt the heavy weight upon their shoulders of their unprepared health care systems and the potential toll on human life that the virus could bring. However, it has often been said that in situations of national difficulty, the protections of the law in a democratic and free society must be upheld. Such sentiments have been employed by notable academics to resist the introduction of emergency legislation or the lifting of constitutional legal standards to deal with the threat of terrorism, Khan QC, The Prohibition against Torture and the Right to Life: The Retention of Fundamental Principles in an Age of Terrorist Attacks, Stafblad 2016(4) 39; J Waldron, Can Targeted Killing Work as a Neutral Principle, NYU School of Law, Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series, Working Paper No.11-20, March 2011; David Cole, The Priority of Morality: The Emergency Constitution’s Blind Spot, The Yale Law Journal, vol. 113, No. 8, June 2004. It has been argued that our current legal systems are sufficient to deal with a threat so insidious and lethal as terrorist attacks.
What we have witnessed with the COVID19 pandemic is not an imposition of detention without trial, or the lifting of jus cogens requirements against torture for those suspected of possessing knowledge of an eminent terrorist threat, as may have been relaxed in the panic of dealing with the threat of terrorism. Instead, we have witnessed nationwide removal of rights of assembly, free practice of religion, freedom of travel, access to education, restrictions of the right to earn a livelihood and the slow suffocation of free market economies.
What has been the means of these governmental actions? Often the ban upon these basic human rights (and as this article is focusing upon religion) and in particular the freedom of religion is issued by way of ‘government advices’. Once such government “guidance” dated 14th December 2020 includes such draconian measures as to silence singing in churches “congregational singing, choir singing and carol singing is not permitted, due to the increased risk of spreading virus (sic) to others present at the service.”
These rules seeking to regulate every avenue of basic human behaviour are lacking the protections afforded by the legislative process, a process which is necessary to enact laws of the State. The legislative process is set out in the Constitution, see for instance articles 15, 18 and 20. The democratic process is enumerated in the Constitution for the very purposes of checking the legislative/executive power and ensuring that legislation is passed in a specific and constitutionally endorsed manner. This process in Ireland involves the progression of a Bill through both houses of the Oireachtas: the Dail and the Seanad. The maintenance of this process is fundamental to uphold the principle underpinning our constitutional democracy, the rule of law.
What further protections are afforded by the Constitution for people who profess religion? The words of the Preamble of the Irish Constitution are very dear to those who hold fast to the beliefs outlined in part 1 of this article. The preamble explicitly recognises that all authority comes from that “Most Holy Trinity” (to whom this article initially refers). Indeed, it states that all actions of both men and states must be referred to this Most Holy Trinity. It goes on to humbly acknowledge all of the people of Ireland’s obligations to “our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ”. This preamble seeks to “promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured…”
In the body of the Constitution at Article 44, the State explicitly recognises that “the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion”. It goes on in 44.2.1 to state that “Freedom of Conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen”.
The high level of respect given to the Christian faith both historically and in our present constitutional documents is very clear from the above sections. The free profession and practice of religion is guaranteed to every citizen. The Constitution also makes clear that these rights are not absolute, but are subject to public order and morality.
How should a court deal with this balance or preference the ‘public order’ over the free practice of religion? Certain judgments in Ireland have employed a proportionality test featured also in European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence.
The case of Heaney v Ireland  3 IR 593 indicates that a proportionality test may be applied where there are restrictions upon the exercise of a right. This test requires that there be minimal restraint on the exercise of protected rights, and the exigencies of the common good in a democratic society. The means chosen must pass a proportionality test:
(a) be rationally connected to the objective and not be arbitrary, unfair or based on irrational considerations;
(b) impair the rights as little as possible, and
(c) be such that their effects on rights are proportional to the objective.
It is not entirely clear how the balancing process between freedom of religion and “the public order” would be undertaken by the Irish courts should an opportunity present itself for them to so rule on the matter. Should the approach in Heaney be employed, it is clear that the restriction upon the exercise of freedom of religion through government action should be “impaired as little as possible”.
There are many options available to the government in keeping places of worship open but yet maintaining restrictions upon close contact between religious observants. Many churches have gone to great lengths to modify their buildings to provide for such measures. Indeed, the simple fact is that supermarkets and schools remain open. It is recognised that there are certain public spaces in which the risk of coming together physically is a necessary one to take in order to avail of an essential service. It is clear from the constitutional document of the Christian faith, that gathering together is an essential requirement of the practice of the Christian religion.
The COVID 19 pandemic has tested our nation’s adherence to the rule of the law, our fidelity to the legislative process and our willingness to protect fundamental rights and freedoms.
There is little doubt that the COVID19 virus is real and dangerous. Yet, in times of national difficulty it is imperative to hold fast to the rule of law and our constitutional freedoms. No one can doubt the immense pressure faced by our government during the dark days of uncertainty the virus brought in 2020. However, there is no such thing as a life without risk. Just as some argue that the threat of terrorism is not enough to cast aside the fundamental protections of constitutional democracy, how much more should we be hugely circumspect to throw aside the constitutional protections of the free practice of religion in the face of a virus? How much more should our political representatives strive to find the least restrictive means of limiting the right of Christians to come together physically and worship and proclaim the good news about the God of the Universe, as is required for the practice of that religion?