WHILE Covid-19 has had an obvious impact on the clergy, and services are now streamed online, it is also shaping the responses of the laity. No fewer than 170 members (out of a total of 500) of the congregation of All Souls’, Langham Place — next to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London — work within the health-care profession. Many are on the frontlines of battling the pandemic; others are serving in non-emergency sectors of the NHS (in the interests of transparency, I should reveal that my wife is one of them). They all stand in a long line of public servants, dating back to the earliest manifestation of Christianity.
Tom Holland’s superlative work Dominion has recently brought renewed attention to the enduring influence of Christianity. But it was the work of the sociologist Rodney Stark, in the early 1990s, when he was Professor of Sociology and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, that first drew my attention to the remarkable record of Christian engagement.
Stark details how groups of believers, often despised and dismissed by the Roman Empire, responded with supernatural levels of compassion to epidemic infections. Such disease was a source of terror to almost everyone else in the ancient world.
An early pandemic swept through the cities of the Roman Empire during the third century. The Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, and a member of All Souls’ congregation, Dr John Wyatt, says that Bishop Cyprian’s contemporaneous account “suggests that the third-century plague he witnessed may have been a highly infectious and lethal haemorrhagic viral infection similar to the Ebola virus, although there is continuing controversy about the nature of these ancient epidemics”.
The initial reaction to the plague was perfectly understandable. Another eyewitness account — from Bishop Dionysius in Alexandria — is quoted liberally in Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity. “At the first onset of the disease,” Dionysius wrote, “the pagans pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into roads before they were dead, and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
This account then describes how the small body of believers responded to the catastrophe. “Most of our Christian brothers and sisters showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.”
As if that were not startling enough, in the context of such horrendous levels of disease and death, Dionysius then goes on to record what happened to those early believers who offered compassion to others. “They were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred death to themselves and died in their stead.”
When I first read Dionysius’s account, I had to repeat one sentence because I wasn’t sure I’d understood it correctly: “They were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
How is that possible?
One of the perennial arguments used against the existence of God the Creator is that suffering in all its forms proves that there is no deity, and that life is a series of molecular accidents, without meaning or purpose. As Stephen Hawking famously wrote, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies.”
Yet 170 members of All Souls’ — to take but one example — have chosen to confront suffering on each working day of their lives, and then turn up (virtually, for the time being) to worship God on Sunday. Just as in the third century, followers of Christ committed themselves to the service of others.
AND what of the argument that Christians are “so heavenly-minded to be of no earthly use”? The historian William H. McNeill, in his book Plagues and Peoples, offers the following insight in relation to the Early Church: “Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death. . . Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease and violent death commonly prevailed.”
Far from being a delusional comfort blanket that provides an immediate distraction from reality, Christianity was born in the midst of suffering. There is a brutal realism about the narrative of Holy Week which is inescapable: the injustice, the violence, the beatings, and, ultimately, the crucifixion. This is no “pie in the sky when you die”. Instead, as Handel’s Messiah so movingly and lyrically interprets the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes, we are healed.”
Perhaps the most famous incumbent of All Souls’ was Prebendary John Stott, who served as Rector from 1950 until 1975 and was associated with the church for most of his 90 years. He wrote prodigiously; and his bestselling work was The Cross of Christ, first published in 1986. It was not future comfort that defined the Christian life, he argued, but Easter Day. “Insistence on security is incompatible with the way of the cross. . . Jesus had no security except in his Father. So to follow Jesus is always to accept at least a measure of uncertainty, danger and rejection for his sake.”
The acceptance of danger, uncertainty, and rejection. They did it back in the third century, and that noble tradition continues today.
Martin Bashir is a journalist and the BBC’s Religion Editor.