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Angela Tilby: Our faces express vulnerability

24 July 2020


I AM not entirely surprised that there has been a flurry of opposition to the wearing of face masks in indoor spaces (News, 17 July). We have watched as more compliant Asian societies have taken them in their stride. We have seen our European neighbours putting up with them without complaint. We have lamented our high case numbers and deaths.

And yet we resist the mask. I find that it is mostly men who seem to have a problem — often the kind of men who will tell you that the virus is all a fuss about nothing, and that mask-wearing is an attack on civil liberties and definitely un-British. I suspect that it is the same kind of men who harass me while riding bikes in areas where bikes are forbidden and walk five abreast in public spaces, forcing me to walk in the road.

A recent piece by Sean Walsh on the website The Article even suggested that the real issue about face-masks was moral, not medical. And he then presented a quasi-theological argument, largely borrowed from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World, about the role of the face in what he described as “the metaphysics of the person”. I have been a fan of Scruton’s earlier book The Face of God for a number of years. It has provided material for sermons and retreat addresses. Basically, I think that Scruton is right when he says that the human face carries immense significance for what it means to be a person. In Christian terms, we are called to relate to one another face to face.

Yet, what Walsh concluded from Scruton’s insights glossed over a crucial point, which is that our faces express our vulnerability to one other. To see and be seen “with unveiled faces” (2 Corinthians 3.17-18) is a fruit of grace. Moses wore a veil when he descended from Sinai, so as not to dazzle his people with a glory that they were not ready to bear.

The veil protects the integrity of the person, which is why it has a continuing place in religious life. The monastic cowl safeguards the praying self from intrusive scrutiny from others. Boris Johnson was rightly criticised for comparing burkas to pillar-boxes (News, 17 August 2018). His comment betrayed the belief that liberty confers on us a right to be “in your face”, to appraise others on our own terms, regardless of their wishes or their (or our) vulnerability.

An awareness of vulnerability is not a weakness. It is, surely, a sign of humility and an exercise in strength and prudence. I feel reassured when others wear face masks and keep their distance, and I believe that, by doing so myself, I am giving that reassurance to others. I hope that, from today, British pragmatism triumphs over the thinly veiled hysteria of those who declare that face masks are for losers.

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