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Leader Comment: What next?

by
26 June 2020

elisa cunningham

READERS will note a different arrangement to this week’s issue, as we attempt to stimulate debate within the Church about how life might be once the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has receded. Ten authors have written briefly on ten chosen topics, though we could easily have chosen ten others. This is, in one sense, premature: the task of keeping Covid-19 at bay will remain the priority. But the days of looking both ways when stepping on to the pavement but not when stepping on to the road are already passing. If the lessons learnt during this time are not to be forgotten, they must be translated into action without delay, before the desire to return to pre-pandemic normality is pursued by those who wish it and who can, to the detriment of the millions who either do not wish it or who now cannot, thanks to unemployment or bereavement.

What are these lessons? Our authors necessarily deal in generalities; but, as the York St John/Church Times poll indicates, experiences during the pandemic have varied wildly. For some, it has been a golden time, a foretaste of retirement, say, or an unlooked-for holiday with their children. The analogy for many, however, requires a baser metal. In the early days of the pandemic, the virus was seen as a social leveller, striking all regardless of class and wealth. As the fatality figures have been analysed, however, it has become clear that, as in life generally, poverty has played a strong hand in determining who contracts the virus, and who survives it. Yet the value of the poor — those working in the caring sector, or supplying food, or, by their absence, working in the hospitality or creative industries — has never been so keenly appreciated.

The pandemic, then, has exacerbated this injustice. The key task for the Government is to tackle this, and to retain the support of the electorate in doing so. This is not the customary position of a Conservative government, and not of one, moreover, forged in the divisive politics of recent years. Those who have its ear — financiers, industry leaders, corporations with off-shore accounts — must be recruited to this great task. Watchwords will include respect — for all people regardless of age, race, creed, abilities, or financial worth; purpose — the creation of work that has meaning; simplicity — retaining the lockdown focus on essentials and delight in the natural world; and humility: there is already much to forgive in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Politicians must learn that bold strategies require the opposite of a bold front.

It would be a mistake to compose an agenda for the Church with a different set of problems listed on it. No Church true to the name was ever set up as a self-help club; but the travails of running an institution with staff and buildings seemed to be consuming most of the C of E’s energy before the pandemic. Much of this work was laudable: if clergy see the same set of people each week, their welfare inevitably takes priority, and the smallest congregation can easily create enough need to overwhelm their pastor. It is here that the urgings of Pope Francis at the start of this week apply to the Church as well as the world: “This is the moment to see the poor.” Just as anti-racist campaigners rightly ignore the C of E’s comforting words and point to the racial imbalance of senior appointments, so anti-poverty campaigners (and why is this not the standard definition of a church member?) can point to the financial imbalance of the Church’s assets in different regions and settings, and its tendency to minister among the comfortable. Perhaps the Pope’s phrase should be reversed: this is the moment for the poor to see the Church.

And not the Church only, of course, but Christ. The pandemic has acted on the Church like a disease, depriving it of the use of the faculty that had come to define it. But, like a body forced to repurpose itself after an amputation, it is discovering that other limbs, other brain cells, can do the same work, just in other ways. There is no escaping the pain of this. Our headline last week referred to the “relief and delight” of the clergy as churches reopened. It could just have truthfully mentioned trepidation and dread. Many clerics have discovered how hard it is to live without status, visibility, and the trappings of leadership and/or service. The reward for rethinking the Church’s ministry, though, is that the old treadmill can be left to gather dust. Lay people have shown themselves in many instances to be better equipped to do the work of the Church when reduced to one of its basics: supplying the need of neighbours.

And as they have done this, in their thousands, they have looked at the neighbours who are working alongside them just as diligently, just as effectively, motivated by a different set of religious beliefs or, more probably, none. If they have not seen Christ in that person, they must have had their eyes closed. It is in this sense that the Church must disappear. For too long it has restricted its idea of the work of God, the opus Dei, to the activity of the self-confessed workers of God (and primarily the daily Office). The pandemic has refreshed the old adage: find out where the Holy Spirit is at work and join in. There is plenty still for the clergy to do: many people have been running down their spiritual store cupboard. The times ahead will demand quick-witted theology, attentive worship, and deep prayer. But the weight of these times is to be borne by all. The work of salvation can only be accomplished together.

Read the articles in our special issue here.

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