There’s a joke going around in New Zealand, according to a report in Politico. God was spotted here. Someone asked, “What are you doing in Aotearoa, God?” “Working from home, bro!” said God. Such is the reputation our South Sea paradise has gained for its conquest of the evil coronavirus.

Not that God is getting any public credit for our achievements. Most of the kudos has gone to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her advisers, who collectively don’t seem to have much time for the Deity.

When gathering restrictions were relaxed this week, they decided that the faithful of various religions could not be trusted to worship in a safe way unless they were restricted to not more than 10 per service. Church leaders had been expecting a limit of 50, which would have been hard enough, but they were thrown a curveball on the day. Not very flattering to them.

What’s galling to many regular churchgoers is that cinemas, bars (if they serve food) and restaurants can take as many people as they can fit, in groups of up to 10, so long as rules about distancing, service and time limits are observed.

Churches (mosques, synagogues) may open their doors, while ensuring that hand sanitising and name tracing procedures are followed, but they have to keep individual visitors to 10 at a time. That is a leap forward from locked churches, but few pastors are going to provide running services for 9 people, or be able to organise their congregations to come in shifts, even if there are enough hours in the day. So effectively, worship services are banned.

Now, it is true that there is more to living one’s faith than communal worship. There’s daily prayer and service to others for a start. It is also true that online streaming of services has provided a much-needed spiritual connection to liturgical celebrations and one’s co-religionists. However, it is not true, as some politicians seem to think, that services delivered through a screen in your living room are just as good as being there.

Nor can serious worshippers be content that in some cases more people are tuning in to streamed services than usually attend live ones, though a couple of government MPs in a debate on emergency legislation to validate remaining restrictions on Tuesday cheerfully suggested we should be. That is good, but it is far from enough.

One problem with the authorities is their idea of what a church service involves. Some of them think it is all about “fellowship”, a folksy togetherness which drives people to hug and kiss one another before and after and possibly during the service. Some of that goes on, for sure, but it is neither essential nor uncontrollable.

Ever since we got wind of the coronavirus here, Catholics have been told not to even shake hands as a sign of peace to their neighbours during Mass. And after six or seven weeks of keeping two meters away from our neighbours in the park or from shoppers at the supermarket we are well primed for keeping to our own bubble in the church.

There’s a particular problem for Catholics in being kept away from the celebration of the Eucharist and Reconciliation (confession): these sacraments are occasions of personal encounter with Christ and special grace. Although God is not limited by these life-giving signs, their tangible nature is psychologically important as well as theologically necessary as the norm.

No wonder some Catholics have grown restless during the lockdown and indignant now, that, with the virus almost eliminated, there seems to be no good reason for delaying a return to communal worship – with spacing of family groups and other precautions. (The reception of holy Communion need involve only the well sanitised hands of the priest placing a host lightly in the hand of each communicant.)

In fact, the government has bowed to pressure to raise the number of people allowed at funerals from 10 to 50 – thanks largely to the Maori community for whom funeral rituals (tangi) are particularly important. Weddings, however, remain limited to 10. In the latter case the authorities perhaps can point to the fact that one of the first and largest clusters of coronavirus cases in the country came from a wedding. Among 15 other clusters none is linked to a church service.

Perhaps it hard for the secular establishment to see the value of religious worship to the economy, compared with shopping malls, restaurants and movie theatres. But people do not go to church just to feel good; they go in order to be good. And moral virtue is a great asset to society.

There is plenty of data showing the positive effects of religious faith. For example, people who worship regularly are more likely to get married and stay married, thus providing stable and happier homes for their children. Single parenthood and broken marriages cost countries like New Zealand a massive amount in housing and other social support. Faith is associated with better mental health and less substance abuse – both major problems in this country, and possibly getting worse under current conditions.

There are scoundrels and irresponsible people of all persuasions, including the various religious faiths; but societies rely on the social capital generated by religious people more than leaders tend to acknowledge. We need every tool in the box (as politicians are wont to say) in the economic crisis that threatens to overwhelm us, and allowing Christians and others the full benefit of their faith is one of those tools.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet