Reading the signs of the times in face of pandemic

I’m a lay person who worships in the Church of England. During the disruption of the pandemic the responses in the church haven’t convinced me that as a church we are reading the signs of the times.

In this pandemic I see a call on the church to resist utilitarian approaches, and to defend the inherent value of every person: human, entire – known and loved by God.

The scale of action by every sector in the face of this pandemic highlights how our response to the Climate Crisis is timid and ineffective. Our failing in the stewardship of the earth is wickedness. It is time to re think and to return to the transforming, crucified love that overcomes all.

Finally we need to stop the squabbling and sniping in the church. To see priests setting to, one against another more and less politely, on public social forums is unedifying and distracting.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

The present pandemic is a sign and warning to all of us of the weakness of our society in the face of an emerging infection. It also is a warning in regard our use, and mostly abuse, of the of the earth’s ecosystems and its many many peoples. Among the many evils of this exploitation, it increases the probability that new emerging diseases will jump from animal hosts into human populations.

I qualify this pandemic as a warning only because in the historic scale of past pandemics COVID19 is ‘only’ a moderately destructive outbreak. It is very different, may the Lord be thanked, to the Black Death Yershina Pestis which killed between 30 and 60% of the European population in the 1400’s. Drawing the comparison is painful, difficult and provocative because of the nearness of the grief, pain, loss, and bitter tears which this pandemic has brought. It is with that bitterness and pain that I start:

Resist utilitarian ethics

It is from that grief and those bitter tears that I draw the first sign for us as a church. We must wholly resist attempts to dismiss the lives of those who have died of COVID19 as lesser, or somehow unimportant, because they had pre-existing conditions, were disabled or old. Each and every one who died was human: whole and entire, known and loved by God. To fail to do so is to slide unknowing into utilitarianism. For the church this impermissible, because the love of God manifested throughout scripture is not based on utility, or any economic good but rather in the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ 1. Other definitions of the ‘the good’ risk, in the limit, admitting evident evils such as categorising certain peoples as ‘sub-human’, or advocating eugenic policies.

Climate crisis

I draw the second sign from the scale of both state and non governmental response to this pandemic. We now see both how powerful, and how limited acts by the State, companies and individuals are in facing an emergency. In sin the church has participated in the contamination of the earth and the abuse of many peoples. These acts have delivered us into another emergency: the Climate Crisis. There is no stable solution for this evil that does not require massive action by State, company and individual. It is time for us to return to the crucified love: to pray and act for the coming of that subversive kingdom of love which undermines all life built on domination and power.

Set our own house in order

In good Church of England fashion, I end with a third point. The present circumstances call us to powerful and sincere action for the life of the world. Instead we are divided. Even if the purpose of the division is the seeking of the good and the will of God, the manner of its doing invites evil among us and is profoundly discouraging.

That our priests are squabbling among one another at such at time as this is profoundly discouraging. I feel great reluctance to cooperate with ministers, who though charged to be agents of God’s purposes of love, cannot navigate the differences within the fellowship without sniping one against the other.

Finally every part of our churches local presence is going to be affected, some drastically: just as every social, commercial and state provision has been by this pandemic. Our priests bear the charge to minister among the people of England, remembering that in this they serve Christ, before whom they will be held to account. This virus makes the flaws, failures and pain of the present distortion of parishes very clear. The parish system has been regularly changed to resolve difficulty or error in the 700 years of its existence. This CoronaTide is a good and necessary time for reworking and adjustment. Because truly we all – not just our priests – will be held to account by God for what we do.

Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

  1. ‘Christ, Reality and Good’ in Ethics / Dietrich Bonhoeffer: translated from the German Edition, edited by Ilse Todt, Heinz Eduard Tod, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green’ English Edition edited by Clifford J Green,; translated by Reinhard Kraus,, Charles C. West and Douglas W. Scott. ISBN 0-80006-8306-4 ↩︎