Plan to Reopen Places of Worship in South Africa Draws Mixed Reactions from Church Leaders

Members of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC)
Credit: SACBC

The announcement by South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa May 26 that places of worship may reopen beginning from June 1 has elicited mixed reactions from church leaders in the country, some welcoming the move and others terming it as questionable.

“The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) welcomes the statement of President Ramaphosa that religious services may resume under level three lockdown from June 1st,” the Catholic Bishops in South Africa have said Wednesday, May 27.

In their collective statement signed by Archbishop William Slattery, the members of SACBC say the reopening of churches will assist many people who have experienced emotional and spiritual distress during the lockdown.”

“People have felt abandoned by the church community in their moment of grave need. The stress of feeling isolated leaves the individual with a weakened immunity,” the Bishops say in their two-page statement and add, “A sense of deep depression due to spiritual longing is also a suffering and a disease.”

They endorse the precautionary measures outlined by the country’s National Coronavirus Command Council including the wearing of masks and adhering to the approximately two-meter physical distancing rule, which were reiterated by President Ramaphosa May 26.

In their statement, the Bishops direct that “should individual communities represented by their priests and parish councils feel unable to meet these precautions, they must keep the churches closed.” 

The Bishops whose conference brings together the three countries of Botswana, Swaziland (Eswatini) and South Africa say that while they welcome President Ramaphosa's sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the people of God, they do so “with a deep sense of caution” considering that “the virus has now afflicted 24,000 people, around 261 in eSwatini and 35 in Botswana.”

In a televised address to the nation May 26, President Ramaphosa announced that places of worship in the country “may reopen under strict conditions” during lockdown Level 3 on 1 June, with a 50-person congregation or less, depending on available space.

“We understand the great impact that the closure of places of worship had on members of the faith community, and that this has worsened the distress of communities who are unable to worship in congregation,” President Ramaphosa said, adding that religious leaders will be recognized as essential frontline workers during the national lockdown, which he first declared March 27.

President Ramaphosa went on to call for a National Prayer Day on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, a move that the Catholic Bishops “fully support.”

Following President Ramaphosa’s announcement, the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the inter-denominational forum that brings together 36 member churches and organizations expressed support for the reopening of places of worship, underscoring the need for “strict adherence” to laws and protocols relating to COVID-19.

“The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has cautiously welcomed, with humility, the reopening of churches under the Level 3 Lockdown regulations, having fully supported the lockdown period that saw church activity suspended in order to contain the rapid spread of COVID19,” the representatives of the 36-member forum say in their collective statement dated May 27.

They add, “We receive the announcement not so much with a sense of euphoria, but as a moment that requires deep reflection about the enormous responsibility that we must now exercise.”

In their statement, the members of the Johannesburg-based interdenominational forum further say that church leaders “should continue to make it clear that attending a Eucharist service in person, is a decision for people to make, without risking themselves and others; and that churches where possible, should continue with streaming live liturgies where possible.”

“Ministers/Priests/Pastors should help their congregants/parishioners make good decisions in this regard,” they say in reference to the individual decision to attend church services and add, “Those regarded to be at high risk of infection, such as the elderly, should be encouraged to be most cautious.”

On their part, the members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) under the Jesuit Institute South Africa have expressed their reservation about the plan to reopen places of worship, terming it “questionable” and that “the move creates yet another inequality.”

“This sudden, seemingly rushed move is questionable. Evidence of cluster spread in other parts of the world suggests that even in places of worship where strict social distancing rules were upheld there were reports of infection,” the leadership of the Jesuit Institute South Africa say in a press statement Wednesday, May 27.

The Jesuit leaders add, “The more people mix, the more there is potential for spread. Places of worship are not immune to the virus. This move seems to contradict the President’s oft repeated phrase that we must be guided by the overriding principle of doing whatever it takes to preserve life.”

They acknowledge the fact that many people have suffered the loss and pain of not being allowed to gather in their respective communities for worship and argue that doing so was seen as a way of religious communities “actively choosing to care by temporarily stopping a core practice – gathering for worship – for the common good.”

“We do not need to open churches right now to practice our faith,” the leaders of the Johannesburg-based institute emphasize and add, “Prayer, acts of kindness, reading sacred texts and service of neighbor can continue without gathering in the midst of this pandemic.”

In their considered view, by allowing places of worship to reopen, the South African government is sending “mixed signals” at a time when “a ban on friend and family visits remains in place.”

“The move creates yet another inequality at a time that has highlighted our profoundly unequal society: those who get to attend and those who don’t. How and by whom will this be decided - and monitored?” the Jesuits probe.

The decision to reopen churches, the Jesuit leaders say, “goes against the very spirit of being a community of believers to split that community.”

There is also lack of financial ability for many places of worship to provide the prescribed protective equipment and to facilitate sanitization of buildings and furniture, the Jesuits in South Africa say.

“There is a logic behind saying that if we open up businesses, churches should follow,” they say and caution, “But there is a difference between opening up for economic survival, particularly as people start to starve, and opening institutions that could function differently in these times.”

“In ethical situations where there are no good options, an ethical response should err on the side of caution. Sadly, we do not believe this does,” they say.

However, in their May 27 statement, the leadership of Jesuit Institute South Africa “wholeheartedly supports” President Ramaphosa’s call for the National Prayer Day on Pentecost Sunday, May 31.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]