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Angela Tilby: Gregory’s guidance in a crisis

20 March 2020


WHILE the churches have been busy issuing instructions about sharing the Peace, administering communion, and, on Tuesday, suspending public worship, there has not been much advice for preachers and pastors about how the coronavirus crisis might be interpreted either in (online?) sermons or in the care of the sick or the anxious.

Our theology of divine providence is pretty weak these days. We assume that a loving God could want only the best for us, with “best” often being rather lazily defined as whatever is safe, profitable, or fulfilling.

But look at the Prayer Book and you will find a very different perspective. The prayer in time of plague or sickness is anything but reassuring. The order for the visitation of the sick urges those who are ill to recognise God’s visitation not necessarily as a warning or punishment, but always as an opportunity for spiritual growth. We are meant to see the hand of God even in those things that threaten our well-being.

One of my heroes of antiquity is Gregory I (540-610), a reluctant Bishop of Rome who would have much preferred a cloistered life. He lived through economic depression, terrible weather, war, violence, widespread poverty, and a decimating plague. He was frequently ill himself.

Nevertheless, he proved to be a highly competent administrator, a skilful missionary bishop, a champion of the poor, and an educator, who anticipated much of the theological vocabulary of the medieval Church. He was sustained by a strong belief that this world, although fallen, was still upheld by the justice of God. God does not desire evil things for us, but permits them, in the hope that they will prod us to seek the salvation that we desperately need. “Herd immunity” from evil comes from wrestling with temptation and refusing to be seduced into the quick fixes offered by superstition.

Gregory’s consistent pastoral response to crisis was to deepen his contemporaries’ understanding of human psychology. In his Moralia on the Book of Job, he brilliantly and sometimes humorously expounds the consequences of sinful desire. Small-scale personal sins generate social disorder, deceit, violence, greed, and injustice. In the second half of the sixth century, Rome was decimated by a plague. In 590, Gregory is reported to have had a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword to mark the end of the pestilence. (This vision is commemorated at Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome, above the fortress of the emperor Hadrian.)

In times of sickness, we should, of course, preach God’s love for all his creatures, especially the afflicted. But we should also remember that what we most need is healing from selfishness: pride, greed, envy. Panic-buying and neglect of hygiene are sinful. The lesson here is that, like it or not, and even when we are self-isolated, we are all in it together.

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