It sometimes feels like the Church’s and Government’s response to COVID is governed by thinking that is not much more complex than the axiom ‘Safety First’. Edward Dowler explores what principles might undergird a more theologically robust and pastorally honest response to our present crisis.
‘Safety first’ seems to have been an almost universal motto during the past few months. Within the Church, from the start of the crisis, there has been a very real fear that our places of worship might become super-spreaders for COVID-19, with enormously damaging consequences for all – especially of course those who might succumb to the virus. Moreover, our institutional shame at the fact that our churches have sometimes been unsafe spaces for the young and the vulnerable may also have accentuated the need to make safety our paramount concern.
Accordingly, much hard and dedicated work has been done to adapt the principles of government guidance to our context. In many ways this has been both welcome and necessary in a situation which has been new to all of us. As an archdeacon I have been grateful for the frequently updated FAQs on the Church of England website which I have been able to consult in the face of many urgent questions.
However, with the overriding emphasis on staying safe, I believe we have been less good at offering a theological perspective on the pandemic and our national and ecclesial response to it. So I would like to suggest a few inter-related subjects for theological reflection.
My first subject is neighbourliness. During the crisis we have seen some inspiring examples of parish and other local communities putting into practice Jesus’s command to love your neighbour (Mark 12.31 and parallels). In my own diocese, there have some heroic mobilisations of neighbourliness through food banks, shopping schemes, phone call schemes and other initiatives.
But on the other hand, we have also learned some new things which may subtly but decisively colour the way in which we view our neighbours. For many of us it may be difficult to return to a Christian sense that the neighbour standing in front of me is one whom I am called to love and serve and who images Christ to me, now that I have been taught to regard him or her as a sort of machine gun, firing toxic droplets at me. Most of us relate to our neighbour through facial expressions and this again is difficult if we are to be increasingly masked up in public for many months. And predictions such as ‘social distancing is here to stay’ surely present a chilling prognosis for neighbourly interaction.
When Jesus is asked in St Luke’s gospel ‘who is my neighbour?’, he responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan who encounters a man half dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. With a slew of active verbs contained in a single verse, Jesus says that the Samaritan ‘went to him, bound up his wounds, poured wine and oil over them, set the injured man on his own animal, brought him to the inn and took care of him’ (Luke 10.34). Before he went to help this man, the Samaritan did not complete a risk assessment, take care to socially distance himself, or don Personal Protective Equipment.
This is not, of course, to say that we should take no steps to protect ourselves when a contagious disease is around. It is to say that Christ calls us to approach to our neighbour with a basic attitude of openness and compassion, rather than suspicion and fear. Our parish churches now have a wonderful opportunity to be schools of such interaction.
A second theme is contingency. Perhaps it could be said that at the heart of all religious belief is the knowledge that we, by contrast with God, are contingent beings. The collect for Night Prayer encapsulates this in its petition that ‘we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may repose upon (God’s) eternal changelessness’.
During the lockdown I have been part of a reading group that has reflected on this in the context of George Herbert’s poem The Flower. Near the middle of the poem, Herbert wishes to escape from the contingent world and inhabit the changeless life of heaven: ‘O that I once past changing were, Fast in thy Paradise where no flower can wither!’ However, by the end he has come to realise that we need to try and embrace the reality that we are contingent beings. Our willingness to do this ultimately equips us for the life of heaven:
These are thy wonders, Lord of love,
To make us see we are but flowers that glide:
Which when we once can find and prove
Thou hast a garden for us, where to bide.
Who would be more,
Swelling through store,
Forfeit their Paradise by their pride.
Contingent human beings always live with uncertainty; always live in the knowledge that we cannot control every aspect of our environment; always know that nothing we ever do in life is completely safe.
This is not of course an invitation to take unnecessary risks. For St Thomas Aquinas, writing about the cardinal virtue of fortitude, truly courageous people are never foolhardy. But the courageous person is also not unnecessarily risk averse, but able to live creatively with the insecurity that is always a feature of contingent human existence. (1)
Third, creation. The Christian belief that the whole of God’s creation is very good (see Genesis 1.31), albeit fallen, has made me uncomfortable with some ways of describing the challenges we face, in particular the use of Churchillian rhetoric such as ‘winning the war against COVID’ as if we were seeking to repel something similar to an air assault by the Luftwaffe.
Theologically, I do not feel that this language of battle and defeat is quite right. I say this with some hesitancy because I realise that it might seem different if I had had a close friend or relative who had died of COVID-19, or even if this were a disease like Ebola or Polio. And yet, surely as Christians we should feel instinctively uncomfortable with the language of an all-out war against any aspect of created existence – viruses included, which, as well as transmitting diseases have their own place in the universe and in some contexts beneficial effects.
In the Christian vision, we are called to value the created world, and to see it as the theatre of God’s transforming grace. Rather than wanting any part of it to be destroyed, defeated or eliminated our hope is that, through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, every atom, every soul and indeed every virus should be transformed, sanctified and directed towards its true end in God.
On a micro-level, we enact this and help to bring it about every time we celebrate the sacraments. For in these, we do not seek to obliterate the physical world, represented in the gifts of bread, wine, water, oil, etc. Rather, we take created reality, bless it and see it transfigured and re-directed towards its God-given purpose. This conveys a powerful message about the value of the created world, and is one of the many reasons why the worship of the Church cannot be taken up into cyberspace.
My final theme is mortality because ultimately the fear of death surely lies beneath our intense fear of this and other viruses. Many have commented in recent months how some of the most precious things we have in life – community life, local businesses, education, medical care to name but a few – have been sacrificed in the fight against the ‘preventable death’ caused by COVID. But, further to this, as Christians we believe in a Lord who ‘by his death has trampled upon death and given life to those who are in the tombs’. We need not be governed by the fear of death because of the future we believe lies beyond it.
And, once again, this certainly does not mean that we can in any way be careless about the loss of life. Indeed, the gospels show us Jesus throughout his ministry constantly seeking to protect human life; to feed people, heal them and raise them up. Occasionally he even restores the dead to mortal life. And yet, in some stark sayings in all four gospels, the Lord who would rise from the dead teaches his followers that our mortal life is not the only one we shall ever have, and that we should not give it an ultimacy that it does not deserve, for ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (John 12.25, cf. Matthew 10.39; Mark 8.35; Luke 9.24).
The importance of the dedication of churches to particular saints has previously been noted on this blog. Following Christ in the paschal mystery, the saints remind us of the Christian hope that death is not the end so that we may live in hope and not in fear.
They were mortal too like us;
Ah! When we like them must die,
May our souls translated thus
Triumph, reign, and shine on high. (2)
The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the Diocese of Chichester.
(2) Palms of glory, raiment bright, James Montgomery (1771-1854).