Singing and dancing around Omicron rules

Singing and dancing at large events pose a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to Kerry Chant, the NSW Chief Health Officer. She’s right – it is a statement of the bleeding obvious – and that’s the context in which to consider the Hillsong Youth festival, which has been ordered by the NSW Health Minister to stop singing and dancing.

This week’s stories kicked off with The Australian’s National Music writer Andrew Macmillan reporting the reaction of the music industry to the closure of several music festivals. He quoted Stephen Wade, chair of the Australian Live Music Business Council: “The confusion for the people who make their living within our industry is: what is the difference between singing and dancing at the cricket, or at Hillsong, or at a wedding, which are all allowed as of today?”

That story pointed at a live-streamed church service – but a better example emerged from the ABC two days later  – the three-day Hillsong “summercamp” held at the Glenrock scout camp south of Newcastle. Social media videos made it look like a music festival. “Pop singer Montaigne shared a video from the camp, commenting that ‘the double standards’ being shown by the Australian government around live entertainment events were ‘absolutely buck wild’ and ‘took her breath away,'” the ABC reported.

Hillsong responded: “These events are our annual high school-aged youth camps, and are not similar to a music festival in any way. Our camps involve primarily outdoor recreational activities including sports and games … Outdoor Christian services are held during the camp but these are only a small part of the program, and any singing is only a small part of each service.”

Such a reading means the Heath Minister’s ruling simply requires the camp to drop the dancing and mass singing.

The music festival versus Hillsong dispute is another example of groups in society pouncing on any perception that the COVID rules give them fewer rights than some other group. “What about me? It isn’t fair.” Churches have done this too, not to mention those Christians who oppose any public health orders affecting worship.

In fact, in the major lockout states, churches have gained concessions from the state governments. During the most recent lockdown in NSW, churches had to wait only a fortnight to hold meetings at which unvaccinated people could attend. In Victoria, places of worship were able to have small meetings of 30 people without checking vaccination status, with larger gatherings of vaccinated people. All these rules have since been relaxed.

Some churches found this rule irksome, and some opposed it in principle. But due to careful negotiation by some religious leaders, it is a fact that churches have been given exemptions not given to others.

It is not possible to write precise COVID rules for every human activity.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard pointed out the sort of mindset it would help everyone to have, saying the Hillsong event was “clearly in breach of both the spirit and intent of the Order, which is in place to help keep the community safe”.

Pity the health regulators! It is not possible to write precise COVID rules for every human activity. Take religious services: the rules probably have in mind people sitting down, standing to sing only a few songs, not mingling much. But some church services are more like rock concerts.

Rather than look to an interpretation of the COVID rules that allows us to get away with as much as possible, everyone and especially Christians should look to the spirit of the rules – is what I am doing keeping people safe? Just maybe the Hillsong youth leaders should have asked “Is my event like the religious services the rules have in mind, given that music festivals have been shut down should we change things?”

As Omicron sweeps through the community, many churches will be back online, some exclusively. The desire to be back at “normal life” needs to give way to patience and kindness. Christians should be able to cope with delayed gratification.

Update: Hillsong has issued a statement that includes “we regret giving any perception that we were not playing our part to keep NSW safe and we sincerely apologise to the community at large …”

“We have since spoken to NSW Health and received instruction to cease congregant/student singing and dancing during the services that occur on the campsite and have immediately and willingly enacted that instruction.”