Kate Rafferty from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Diana Dogaru from Babes-Bolyai University, Romania discovered the need for greater dialogue between faith communities and governments in the wake of COVID-19.

With Australian states imposing their own restrictions on attendance at religious services, faith leaders are calling for greater consultation and fairness in the application of social distancing directives in places of worship. 

Manager of Communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney Michael Kenny, says the main concern of the Archdiocese is to ensure that all state governments are listening to congregations and open to hearing their concerns.

“We are still seeing states and territories struggling with these restrictions on churches,” he said.

That struggle is evident in the variable application of social distancing restrictions at religious services across Australia.

Photo of St Ambrose Church, Concord West

With the easing of restrictions, Catholic churches in Sydney have implemented strict hygiene rules. All who enter the Church must apply hand sanitiser and provide their contact details for potential contact-tracing. (Photo: Kate Rafferty)

As of June 1, 50 people were permitted to attend a religious service in NSW. Whereas in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, a 20-person limit is currently in place. In Tasmania, only 10 people can attend a religious ceremony or private worship.

The easing of restrictions in NSW followed a successful campaign led by the Archdiocese of Sydney. It called for “equal treatment” of Catholics and other worshippers at a time when other public venues such as pubs, clubs, restaurants and hotels, are opening their doors with softer restrictions.

“We want to ensure that there is fairness across the country and that churches are brought into line with those other public venues,” Mr Kenny said.

“We don’t think we should be treated any differently.”

According to Dr Brian Adams, Director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University, a lack of clear communication between government and faith leaders has led to confusion over how to design and approach lockdown procedures.

“Faith communities feel that there have been a lot of challenges re-created again and again, which, if there had been some kind of forum of communication, could have been solved much more quickly.”

Poor communication between governments and religious leaders has resulted in mixed responses to the pandemic around the world. In the Christian Church alone, the Easter period saw differing pandemic responses from the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.

While most Christian Churches were closed, with worshippers encouraged to view masses online, parishes in Georgia and some US States proceeded with Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday masses.

Photo of traditional red-dyed Easter eggs and fruit at the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Sălard.

Traditional red-dyed Easter eggs and fruit at the Church of Sălard. Greek Orthodox priests were allowed to deliver the traditional gifts to local worshippers. (Photo: Diana Dogaru)

In Europe, Orthodox parishes in Romania and Georgia continued to give Holy Communion with a shared spoon and allowed priests to deliver the Eucharist service and the traditional Easter holy light to those who requested it.  

The Greek Orthodox Church was criticised for allowing the use of a shared spoon or chalice. But the Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Church, claimed it could not contribute to the spread of the virus.

Retired priest, Father Vasile Bandui from Sălard in Romania, says he has seen how the lack of communication between governments and the Church has fuelled protests against public health advice.

“Those measures were extreme, we had no word in them, we were left in confusion waiting for the government to take decisions in our name,” he said.

“Of course, people were going to be outraged.”

Navigating the lockdown period has not been easy for Church leaders and worshippers, according to Father Bandui.

“We all need to establish a proper connection with God and our faith but,  for now, I believe it is best to listen to what the authorities say.”

Photo outside the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Sălard

In Eastern Europe where the Orthodox Church is still influential, some priests ignored public health guidelines on social distancing and home isolation (Photo: Diana Dogaru)

For Dr Adams, this shared international experience of COVID-19 is an example of how future planning could benefit from better faith and government relationships.

“In times of crises, people will turn to faith leadership rather than a cultural group for support or direction.

“If we want to have an effective and impactful policy, we should take them [faith leaders] into consideration”.

— Kate Rafferty @katerafferty99 with Diana Dogaru