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Glimpses of a new world

by
20 November 2020

In a new book, Rowan Williams considers the impact of the pandemic for believers

Batchelder/Alamy

Empty supermarket shelves during the Covid pandemic

Empty supermarket shelves during the Covid pandemic

“THE summer is ended and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8.20). Anyone who remembers those bleak words from the prophet will probably feel that they have a harsh appropriateness just at present. We still don’t know for how long we will have to live with this pandemic, what the eventual cost will be in lives, jobs, confidence, physical safety, mental, and spiritual well-being. For all of us, some much more than others, the effects of the pandemic continue to bite deep.

Over-excited commentators are happy to hand out blame. Easy enough to do, and there are indeed some hard questions to be answered about slow and half-hearted responses and inflated claims. But it’s a lot more difficult to acknowledge that we have genuinely been overtaken not only by practical challenges that no one had fully foreseen but by feelings no one had foreseen.

Some of the more insightful commentators have noted that the pandemic has set a large question mark against the assumption of guaranteed security that has been the backdrop to the lives of more prosperous communities and individuals for decades — the narrative that we are steadily “taming” our environment.

Most of the human race has not, of course, enjoyed that luxury anyway; and one thing that should come into focus in the light of the pandemic is this new and unwelcome solidarity in uncertainty. The British theologian Andrew Shanks has written a good deal about “the solidarity of the shaken” — the possibility of discovering real community on the far side of recognising a vulnerability in which we’re all involved.

That’s one of the things that a community of faith might well be thinking about at the moment. The Christian gospel repeatedly tells us that we are always involved in a situation of shared failure and shared insecurity; it tells us that this is overcome only when we stop denying it by closing our hearts to each other; and it announces that our closed hearts can be and are broken open to each other through the action of God in Jesus and the Spirit.

Faith does not deny the fragility we all share, nor does it make light of the cost and pain of it. It invites us to confront our shared fragility with honesty and compassion, recognising our need of one another, our need for the neighbour to be well and safe — instead of falling back on our fearful attempts to be safe at the neighbour’s expense.

 

TRUST that we can face the truth without being destroyed; hope that the crisis we seem caught in is not the last word about what’s possible for human beings; and love, the full-hearted will for the well-being of the entire world we inhabit. This is the landscape we live in, the landscape whose contours we have to try to make more real to those around us. The great question, as and when we have emerged from the immediate shadow of the pandemic, will be: What have we learned? Christians should be able to prompt, and to build on, some answers.

Perhaps we have learned more about our dependence on one another; perhaps we have learned something of the need to accept the limits and risks of living in a world we are never likely to tame successfully and totally.

Or perhaps we have had our eyes opened to who is least safe in our neighbourhood — and not just our immediate neighbourhood, but our global neighbourhood: those who have never shared the security we take for granted; those who have lived for years with the isolation and frustration that we so chafe at; those whose jobs are the first to be lost; those enduring depression and other mental challenges; those with partners or relatives who’ve become mentally or physically abusive; those in front-line care work who have given their lives in the fight to control the virus; those who have lost loved ones either to the virus itself or because the treatment needed for other conditions could not be delivered in time.

Ultimately, the question for us as a society is whether we have grown through the solidarity into which we have been forced. Simple solutions are not yet in sight as we move into a hard winter. But, to go back to the very first of these reflections, what if the change has already begun? What if something of a new world has been seen afresh and has kindled a new force of longing for generous, equitable, joyful living together?

Pray that it is so; act as if it were.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth is a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

 

This is an extract from Candles in the Dark: Faith, hope and love in a time of pandemic by Rowan Williams, to be published by SPCK on 10 December at £9.99; (CT Bookshop special offer £7.99).

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