THE GUARDIAN had an excellent and imaginative picture essay by Harriet Sherwood and David Levene on faith under lockdown. This went much deeper, and more vividly, than anything else I’ve seen on the subject. It even managed to make Pat Allerton sound fresh. “The Rev Pat Allerton, a Church of England vicar, pressed a button on his phone to play Judy Collins’ powerful rendition of Amazing Grace, and something extraordinary happened.
“Faces appeared behind glass, windows opened and people leaned out. Residents came on to balconies. Some held up small children to see. . .
“Amazing Grace faded and Allerton took up his microphone. As he began the Lord’s Prayer, some people bowed their heads, some put their hands together, some mouthed words taught many years before. A few wept. No one laughed or jeered or heckled. In the middle of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, this was a communal moment of spirituality.”
The most unexpected part was the account of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in north London, for whom “the use of technology is prohibited on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. Moreover, a minyan — a physical quorum of 10 males over the age of 13 — is required for prayer. How could they meet both the requirements of their faith and the coronavirus constraints?
“Joel Snitzer had an idea. . . Snitzer went to the synagogue to pray three times a day before lockdown. Now the synagogue was locked, but perhaps he and his neighbours could form a minyan, each separated in their own back garden.
“Over a weekend, he built a bimah, a raised platform from which the Torah is read, where his garden meets the garden backing it. He fetched the Torah scroll from his synagogue. The neighbours agreed on a daily act of worship at 9.45am. To all intents and purposes, they created a backyard synagogue.
The photograph of this almost-gathering is wonderfully strange.
The Snitzers did have one Muslim neighbour, but he was undisturbed by this, and even a little pleased. The account of a Muslim charity delivering food to NHS workers during Ramadan was also memorable: “One recipient, Boshura Khatun, a respiratory and cardiac nurse . . . had prioritised her patients over her prayers on many evenings and had often gone home with a ‘banging headache’ after a 12-hour shift in full PPE and with no food or water.”
THE admiration afforded to unconventional religion in the lockdown is matched by the scorn poured on the conventional sort. Ann Treneman, in The Times, describes herself as “an irregular churchgoer, but I value spirituality and a communal place for contemplation”: the sort of person that the Church really needs to return in person.
In her column, she asked: “Where’s God when you need him? Probably waiting to be admitted to a Zoom meeting. My local church, the towering grade I listed edifice that is All Saints’ in Bakewell, has recently reopened but only for private prayer from 9 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. You can scan a QR code to find some prayers or you can light a virtual candle.
“It doesn’t feel as though anyone has been trying very hard here.”
I know that such thoughts will infuriate all the clergy who have been trying very hard, but I think that their efforts have been almost entirely invisible to the outside world.
OVER in Hong Kong, the resistance to the Chinese takeover has been led by Christians to a remarkable extent, although only the American papers seem to have noticed this properly. In that context, it’s worth reading two accounts of dealing with totalitarian regimes of press control. First, The New York Times: “China’s government hacked into Android phones used by Xinjiang’s largely Muslim Uighur population. [They] could remotely turn on a phone’s microphone, record calls or export photos, phone locations and conversations on chat apps. [They targeted] apps that hosted Uighur-language news, Uighur-targeted beauty tips, religious texts like the Quran and details of the latest Muslim cleric arrests.”
Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review reported: “Any Facebook-issued device, or even a phone with the Facebook app installed, could be vulnerable to the company’s internal investigators. If a source has friended a reporter on a social network or merely looked up their profile on a company computer, Facebook can find out. It can potentially tap location data to see if a reporter and a source appear to be in the same place at the same time.”
After one reporter published a critical article, “every one of his Facebook friends who worked at the company was individually called into a room and interrogated by company staff.” Obviously, Facebook can only sack people, not torture, kill, sterilise, or even imprison them, as the Chinese government does. But neither is a friend of a free press.