Charles Sturt theology experts reflect on COVID-19

8 APRIL 2020

Charles Sturt theology experts reflect on COVID-19

Three theology experts from Charles Sturt University reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected religion, faith and worship and how religious groups are adapting to the disruption and changes of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted communities around the world and impacted the religious practices of many different groups.

On Monday 23 March, indoor places of worship across Australia were closed by the order of the federal government. The unprecedented decision has disrupted rituals for multiple religious groups and forced many to cancel their traditional services. It has also resulted in an adaption and change of usual routines in order to adhere to the restrictions and continue to connect with communities.

To shed some more light on how religious practices have been impacted by COVID-19, three theology experts from Charles Sturt University reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected religion, faith and worship and how religious groups are adapting to the disruption and changes of COVID-19.

The Reverend Dr Peter Walker

The Reverend Dr Peter Walker (pictured), Principal of United Theological College and Lecturer in the Charles Sturt School of Theology. Reverend Dr Walker is based in Sydney.

Christianity is about loving God and loving your neighbour and both are fundamentally about community – physical community. For example, Christians will typically believe they show their love for God by gathering as a community to worship, usually but not always, on Sunday mornings. Another example would be caring for their neighbours, whether that’s a particular neighbour or the collective neighbour that we name community.

And so while COVID-19 is drawing people apart, physically, a challenge for the churches is around the question of community. How do you serve neighbour and community while upholding the truly essential call to stay physically apart? Cancelling gatherings includes gatherings for worship, so the question is also about how to practice the love of God in worship when official places of worship are closed. It’s a big disruption to ‘church-as-usual’.

Interestingly, quite a few churches are finding the disruption brought on by the pandemic has provoked opportunities for innovation. Lots of live-streamed worship services are now being accessed by Christians from their homes. Lots of care parcels and food packs are being left at people’s doorsteps. And a massive number of the professional social services that churches provide in towns and cities are now available from phone-to-phone, or screen-to-screen. Two-dimensional consultations are not as good as those held in person, but emotional and spiritual support in two dimensions is probably better than being alone with pain or worry.

And so while ‘historic opportunity’ is not the first phrase that comes to mind when I think about COVID-19, it does come to mind – down the list. It comes well after first instincts of heartbreak and utter sadness about the distress on streets and in homes. But it is an opportunity to make changes to ‘church-as-usual’, and that might lead churches to find new ways to love God and their neighbour. Hopefully that’s a good thing for everyone, no matter what we believe.

Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp (pictured), Director of the Charles Sturt Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Lecturer in theology, philosophy and history. Associate Professor Mehmet Ozalp is based in Sydney.

As the world faces the greatest disruption of our lifetime, Muslims throughout the world are also grappling with the risks and repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Islamic cultural, spiritual and theological dimensions offer Muslims myriad ways of coping.

Australian mosques are now closed and Friday prayers attended by hundreds of millions of Muslims have stopped. Stopping Friday prayers on a global scale has never occurred since it was introduced by Prophet Muhammad in 622 after escaping to the city of Medina from the persecution he and his followers endured in Mecca.

Further, two of the five pillars of Islamic practice, the fasting in Ramadan and the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ramadan is less than three weeks away. It starts in the last week of April and goes for a month. The main pilgrimage (hajj) season falls in late July.

Although there is the possibility of COVID-19 slowing down by July, a pilgrimage involving more than two million people from just about every country on earth would almost certainly flame the virus into a second wave. Saudi Arabia is likely to cancel the main pilgrimage for 2020. In the 14 centuries of Islamic history, pilgrimage could not be undertaken a number of times due to roads not being safe, but this is the first time in history that pilgrimage could be called off due to a pandemic.

Right Reverend Professor Stephen Pickard

Right Reverend Professor Stephen Pickard (pictured), Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and Professor in the Charles Sturt School of Theology. Right Reverend Professor Pickard is based in Canberra.

From earliest centuries, Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday has been the most sacred of celebrations in the Christian calendar. Throughout the globe, disciples of Jesus gather to celebrate the story of Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem, his final supper with friends, his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and the great surprise of Easter Sunday. In truth, we are at the headwaters of the remarkable expansion of the good news of God’s abiding love for the world. Henceforth we see the world through Easter eyes.

This year, gatherings will be curtailed. In our physical isolation from each other, new creative ways of Easter worship for the faithful have emerged. Easter will be, for many, seen through Zoom and YouTube. But that will not include everyone, so it’s not your normal Easter.

Perhaps the truly great challenge at this time is how the faithful might continue to serve the world for which Jesus died and rose again. In a time of fear and panic in many places, and profound grief and loss for others, the unseen and unspoken dedication of so many who are at the front line of compassion continues in new, creative and self-giving ways. Easter charity does not stop, care for the homeless does not stop, support for the disabled and house bound does not stop, attending to the poor and troubled youth does not stop, attending to the needs of the aged and infirmed does not stop. But such ministry is severely challenged and new strategies of care are required.

When the resurrected Jesus met the disciples in the Upper Room he bore the wounds of his death. Wherever we see the wounds of the world, the forgotten and despised and marginalised, we are reminded that the celebration of Easter is never an end in itself. The world waits for an outbreak of spontaneous compassion; the kind of compassion that happens when we see the world through Easter eyes.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews, contact Rebecca Tomkins at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0456 377 434 or

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Religion and Ethics