After several months of conducting private prayers burrowed in the comfort or, for some, the discomfort of their homes, the declaration of a partial re-opening of houses of worship was met with mixed reactions.
Addressing the nation on Sunday, 20th September, President Yoweri Museveni finally made the long-awaited announcement. He had done his best to keep the generally displeased and increasingly aggrieved population of worshippers at bay for a while, having eased the lockdown on other public spaces, but the sanctuaries.
Whereas it was such a wonderful upshot that at long last the doors had been swung open, the potentially upsetting news, though, was that the president capped the number of people that would be allowed to congregate at any one time. Regardless of the extent of one’s church or ministry, the limit is a gloomy 70.
Perhaps that figure could have been proportioned according to size and capacity. For example, in a rural setting, seventy might make for an entire congregation. On the other hand, for the average urban church, that’s about the size of the choir alone.
Following the president’s pronouncement, Rev. Dr. Stephen Samuel Kaziimba, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, welcomed the decision and thanked the head of state. Quoting from the book of Acts 5:42, the archbishop who, in principle appeared to contradict himself considering the ‘seventy’ ceiling said; “It is clear that the pattern in the early church was large group public worship in the temple courts and, at the same time, worship at home.”
Speaking of patterns, 48 hours after the president’s announcement, the leader of the Zoe Fellowship, Prophet Elvis Mbonye, had a fervent response.
During his weekly fellowship on Tuesday 22nd September, to an audience of over 18,000 viewers that were tuned in from across the globe, the prophet indicated that what had been apparently given as church opening cannot be considered a church.
“What is said about a church is; ‘whosoever will, let him come.’ That is the pattern of the scriptures. If it is restrictive, you can’t call that a church,” Mbonye objected.
Citing the story of the leper on whom Jesus laid hands and healed in Matthew chapter eight, Mbonyeadded, “You can’t call something a church when you are going to restrict the sick from going there.” “Our pattern is Jesus!” he emphatically stressed.
Mbonye’s frame of reference particularly dismantles lesson four, section two, clause (h) of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) guide, which mentions that a religious organization shall: “Provide a room or area for temporarily isolating people who may show signs or symptoms of COVID-19.”
Additionally, lesson four, section five, clause (b) prohibits the laying of hands: “Laying of hands by the clergy will be temporarily prohibited during service in the current context of COVID-19.”
The peculiarity of having prophetic foresight is the ability to see beyond the physical elements and detect a sly intruder. The downside of overlooking spiritual gifts is the inability to notice that there has been an outright invasion of the church by the State. For instance, the limit of 70 per gathering effectively places a restriction on the number of people that will give their lives to the Lord.
The autocratic SOP clauses pretty much set the platform for Mr. Museveni to guilefully inch his way towards the place of supreme spiritual leadership over the nation of Uganda, where he can determine how religious institutions should or should not operate.
For years, there has been a tug of war between the state and religious entities over a proposed Religious Faith Organizations Policy (RFO) which, many argue, carries a repressive spirit—the reason they have consistently rejected it each time it has reared its ugly head.
Incidentally, the SOPs bear just about all the hallmarks of the RFO and appear to be a reincarnation of the same. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the rift that this has caused in the church.
Essentially, the split in opinion regarding the re-opening of places of worship leaves two options. To either embrace the development along with the clearly oppressive regulations, or, for the likes of Prophet Elvis Mbonye who prefer to maintain certain patterns or standards, stick to online assemblies until the storm blows itself out.