There was an excellent letter to the Church Times just before Christmas from the Archdeacon of Hastings, the Rev’d Dr Edward Dowler. It was subtitled ‘Deeper questions that Covid measures raise‘, and merits a far wider reading, not least because it touches on the sheer thoughtlessness of church incumbents and parochial church councils deciding to close their services in order to ‘protect the public’ and ‘Save the NHS’.
When a parish church determines not only to cancel its traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols on the last Sunday of Advent, but hastily follows this with the cancellation of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve – for the first time in its history – you have to wonder what they believe the Church to be for. We are not talking about the cancellation of services because the priest is sick, or because the whole choir, organist and vergers have contracted Covid, but the cancellation of what are usually the best attended services of the year out of fear that somebody might catch something from someone.
When government guidelines are over-zealously interpreted and enforced as articles of Church law, as the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed in the Great Coronavirus Lockdown of 2020 when all of England’s churches were ordered to be closed for the first time since 1208, even to their own priests, there are undoubted pastoral consequences, not to mention profoundly spiritual and missiological detriments. When no Eucharist is celebrated at the altar, no liturgy enacted in the nave, and no prayers uttered in the cloisters, what is this ‘recovery’ from the pandemic?
At Christmastime, perhaps most especially, a parish church ought to pull out all the stops (quite literally) to sound its merry organ and sweet singing choir to the whole neighbourhood. A Church of England priest should tend his or her flock with holly and ivy, even mince pies and mulled wine, and serve in the care – the cure – of all parish souls, not just those who attend week by week. Should the Church really be going along blithely with Covid passes, ‘What would Jesus do?‘ medical interventions, and the government’s ever-increasing data collection and tracking?
Once again, the Covid Recovery Group has issued timely and comprehensive guidance on the measures that churches are now obliged or advised to take to combat the spread of Coronavirus. Once again, ‘recovery’ seems primarily to be about translating government directives into our own context, with little reflection upon their far-reaching implications. In her introduction to the updated guidance, the chair of the group writes that ‘the latest measures announced by the Government should offer some extra protection and reassurance for people’. They do not reassure me.
The rise of Omicron indicates that the discovery of new variants of Covid and other diseases will from now on invariably rise to the top of the news agenda. The response to these developments likewise indicates that whenever this happens powerful voices in politics, science and the media will swiftly call for a range of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns, increased use of masks, distancing and working from home. The evidence is now clear that some at least of these have caused incalculable harm to society, education, the economy, health care and indeed the life of the Church. Do we believe that the continued use of such measures can be justified whenever a new public health concern is raised?
The introduction of Covid passes for entry into larger venues raises further questions. It indicates that we are likely to become a society in which our health status, and perhaps in time other information about us, will increasingly be captured on our mobile phones, and used to determine whether we may participate in certain forms of activity. Moreover, by contrast with previously held moral standards about the right to bodily autonomy, it seems that individuals will now come under heavy societal pressure, and possibly legal obligation, to receive medical treatments when these are believed to contribute to the wider good. Are we happy to support such developments?
Doubly jabbed myself and having recently recovered from an unpleasant brush with the virus, I am neither ‘anti-vax’ nor a ‘Covid-denier’. However, I do believe that the situation that is now upon us – and no longer in some predicted future – raises crucial moral, social and indeed theological questions which the Church cannot indefinitely sidestep, and which we must find a proper way to address if ‘recovery’ is to be an attainable goal.