The day the Archbishop of Canterbury made me swear

My strongest language usually rises to ‘crumbs‘, or once, when I slipped on stone steps and landed on my back, “oh my goodness“.

Only twice in recent times can I recall swearing out loud (or in print), once was early in the year as I was driving into work and heard that the government were putting off taking action on Covid and thus deliberately sacrificing the lives of so many people; the other was yesterday. It has only been rarely, and I know that in the latter case it is through ignorance not ill-will, that I have faced deep evil so directly.

I was in tears and despair at the utter irresponsibility of the letter by the UK faith leaders to the Prime Minister.  On the day that the US is hovering on the edge of giving Trump a second term, it is hard to find anything shocking anymore, but this shook me to the core and made me ashamed to be a Christian.

The letter appears so reasonable, echoing the words of pubs, gyms, and so many that are struggling with the implications of further lockdown.  Everyone has a good reason why the rules shouldn’t apply to them. However faith leaders should be giving moral leadership; a lived example against craven self interest.

It is worth reading the letter in full.

Covid secure

It starts with a common misconception: “Public Worship is covid-19 secure“.  This notion of being ‘covid safe’ is similar to those in universities and every area of commercial and public life.  Of course none of the measures we take are utterly ‘safe’, but each reduces risk to levels that within particular levels of disease prevalence are acceptable.  Also, like many other aspects of life, it will not be the actual structured worship itself where there are risks, but the coming and going, the greeting and chats that linger a little too long and too close. The hymn singing in my tweet is of course hyberbole; singing was identified as being a critical feature in worship super-spreader events and so where there is singing in worship, it is now confined to a small well-spaced choir with at most hum-along.

However, the same is true of many other areas, of life.  In the SAGE summary of possible non-pharmaceutical interventions, only four measures have substantial effect:

measure reduction in R value
Stay at home order (“lockdown”) 75% reduction
Work from home wherever possible 0.2–0.4
Mass school closure 0.2–0.5
Closure of Higher Education 0.2–0.5

Everything else is of low and uncertain impact, it is only the accumulation of many factors together, each of which has small, maybe minimal effect, which together can make a difference.  The lockdown, both the shorter firebreak in Wales and the longer lockdown in England will have hard and in some cases terrible impacts on many people.  Each setting: pubs and restaurants, tourism, retail, gyms, non-school sport, have made every effort to be as ‘covid safe’ as possible.

What are the faith leaders suggesting here, that religious worship should be free while everyone else suffers together?

This is a multi-faith letter, and I cannot speak for other faiths, but the heart of Christian tradition is the God who does not merely sympathise or alleviate sufferings, but enters into that suffering; the God sits alongside us, who feels the pain with us.  This is the essence of the baby born at Christmas and the Christ who not only died for us, but lived alongside us.

The way of Jesus is to not to seek ways to bypass or be given a free pass.  For the Church, closing alongside the shop, the pub and children’s sport is not a problem or inconvenience but a sacred duty.

Sustain our service

The letter describes how “Faith communities have been central to the pandemic response” including foodbanks and volunteering.  This should be the most uplifting section, but is most disturbing.

I think it is trying to say that this level of service cannot be maintained by people without the support offered by shared physical worship. In some ways this is similar to national support of the NHS, recognising that those who are doing much to help others need support themselves.

Buy, if you dig deeper what is the implication here?  Maybe some weekly pot banging for the churches, mosques and synagogues?  I’m sure it would help the mental health of nurses who are in PPE all day long to be able to party together without masks.  Many others who volunteer might find their solace in a pint or cup of coffee with friends.  Are all of these acceptable, or only the act of worship?

What makes the faith community so different?  It would be nice to say the faith itself and God who sustains, but this letter suggests that instead they need more external support than everyone else.

Most worrying is “Without the worshipping community, our social action and support cannot be energised and sustained indefinitely“.  There is a fine line between a warning or prediction and a threat.  I assume that this was never intended to be the latter, but placed close to the beginning of the letter and directly below the heading “Public Worship is Essential to sustain our service” and the description of that service (maybe time to re-read Luke 12), the overtones are concerning.

Social cohesion and connectedness and “the Mental Health of our nation”

The next two sections of the letter focus on mental health and well being (and yes, the capitalisation is that of the letter).

Across the country elderly people in care homes can’t see their families, Those with sick relatives have to constantly weigh the risks of visiting, with the possibility they may never see them again.  In so many jobs not just the obvious front-line ones, people put themselves in danger. Not just this but there are those avoiding going to hospital (in Wales we’ve had one of the larger recent hospital outbreaks, 99 deaths in Cwm Taf Morgannwg) and there are so many facing financial or personal ruin due to lockdowns.

This is all not just because of Covid itself, but because we cannot collectively gather the self-discipline and basic compassion that prioritises the most needy.

The lockdowns and other restrictions are there to help prevent or reduce these impacts on life and well-being. We live within these measures for the sake of others.

The letter from the faith ‘leaders’ (and it sticks in my throat to use the word), undermines this message of self-sacrifice and in so doing is not only shameful, but compromises the moral integrity of the nation.

It is marked that on the same day that this letter was published I retweeted a statement from Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales (who maybe should be known as St Mark):

His straightforward approach and appeal to the best natures of the nation is in such sharp contrast to those who carry the name of “faith leaders”.  Again and again, when asked about this minor edge of legislation or some possible loophole he takes the questioner back to the basic principle that we do not seek to do the most we can within the rules, but to do the most we can for others.  I am reminded of the Gospels.and Jesus responses to the legal penny pinching of the Pharisees, the “faith leaders” of their time,

Signs of hope

This is so important and yet the paragraph goes on to say “faith communities who consistently embody behaviours and attitudes that are covid-19 safe and hopeful provide encouragement to others through modelling these behaviours and attitudes“, while advocating that places of worship should be given carte-blanche to continue while other areas that have also endeavoured to be “covid-19 safe” have to close down.  This is indeed creating a model for others of “attitudes and behaviours” that are self-interested and tone deaf to the sufferings of society around.

The section goes on to say “Public worship is therefore an essential sign that we can find new ways of living with Covid-19 until the vaccine is found, and part of the psychological and social cohesion needed to exit restriction measures“, and indeed this is the case.

Stories I’ve heard from those running online services through lockdown (and not ones with young congregations!) is that they are seeing people on Zoom who had never been in church, and that when they were able to open again there were few in the building that had not been attending online. So many people find going into a religious building hard. For some this is about having too many people around, or being able to keep quiet long enough. For others the fear of doing something wrong; hardest in more unstructured settings such as a free church or Quaker meeting where the rules are unwritten compared to where you just follow the service book. Being able to join from the security of one’s home has opened the doors to more people than any evangelist!

If we ignore the vapid pleadings of exceptionalism, the headings of this letter could read as a set of challenges for the faith communities in the Time of Covid.  Can we cut behind the curtain of the sanctuary and ask what physical public worship is really about?  This letter forms a strong basis for that.

If instead of saying,”we should be an exception because of this“; why not ask, “how can we do this even with the restrictions upon us?“, or even “how can we use this time to find a fresh understanding of the things that are really core to our faith and our being?“.

Image attribution: Yellow vector created by starline –