To Mask or Not to Mask? That is the Question
Throughout the pandemic the wearing of facemasks has been a contentious subject and is becoming increasingly so. At first dismissed as having no helpful impact by the WHO and UK government scientists, last July there was an about face, and mask mandates were applied. From Monday 19th that mandate will be removed (in England at least) although the more cautious government line is that they should continue to be worn in crowded spaces. So what about in church?
The two main reasons for churches to insist (or encourage) the wearing of masks are along the same lines that Sadiq Khan is insisting they remain in place on public transport in London: suppress the virus and give people confidence. Should church leadership teams follow Sadiq’s example?
The first of these reasons is a simple scientific call – though the science is, unfortunately, less than clear. A recent study from Cambridge demonstrated that FFP3 masks, which block aerosols, are very effective in preventing the spread of covid, in contrast to other masks which don’t block aerosols. This is hardly surprising given that the coronavirus spreads largely by aerosols, and not by droplets or surface contact. Each church team will have to conduct their own risk assessment on this one, but for me, the very marginal potential virus suppressing effects of masks (unless you can get hold of FFP3 ones) are outweighed by the many downsides of wearing them. It seems that mask wearing is far more about psychological signalling than actual health benefits. Which leads to the second point of whether mask wearing increases confidence.
This is an even trickier one than trying to work out whether or not masks have health benefits because it is even more subjective. Do we follow what we might call the Gareth Southgate approach and continue to exercise extreme caution? Or should we be somewhat bolder?
Christianity has a bias towards the ‘weaker brother’. In favour of the continued wearing of masks we might employ the instructions of Romans 14 & 15 that ‘those who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’. The problem in this case is working out who is the weaker brother: are the ‘strong’ those who want to ditch masks or is it actually the likes of Sadiq Khan who have significant powers to impose mask wearing on unwilling wearers?
We might also consider the exhortation of Titus 3 ‘to be peaceable and considerate’ towards one another; or the instructions about clothing and hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 – instructions intended, at least in part, to help congregations act in a way that doesn’t cause offence to a brother or sister.
On the other side of the ledger we could call into play scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Galatians 2:11-13, 5:1-2; or even 2 Corinthians 3:18!
Of course, none of these scriptures speak directly to the subject of facemasks, although they are helpful in providing a grid for how we act towards one another and seeing the significance that items as apparently insignificant as a small square of cloth can have.
In the end this needs to be a pastoral call. At Gateway we are going to make mask wearing a matter of personal discretion – people will be as free to wear masks or not as they are to wear t-shirts or a suit. Those who choose not to wear masks will need to be gracious towards those who do and those who do will need to refrain from judgment of those who don’t. Yes, this will create space for potential tensions, but whatever decision a church makes on masks will do that. It can feel like whatever decision is made will result in a lose-lose, with someone taking offence. It doesn’t have to be like this in the church though. If we display love towards one another, regardless of mask wearing preference, we can turn this situation into a win-win.
Personally, the downsides of mask wearing – the sweaty, spotty face; the barriers to communication; the discomfort, especially as the weather finally improves – are something with which I no longer want to live. Others are free to choose differently.
Finally, an observation: the pastors I’m talking to who say, ‘We’re really struggling to get people back in church’, are also those pastors who have been generally more cautious throughout the pandemic. Lead cautiously and those you lead become cautious too. While we have a responsibility to care for, be patient with, and sensitive to those who are cautious, we also have a responsibility to lead people into faith, courage and hope: that’s harder to do from behind a mask.