INEQUALITIES of wealth and opportunity, poor housing, poor nutrition, prejudice, and xenophobia that have surfaced during the pandemic are “a scourge and a disgrace”, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, has said.
He was introducing a debate on the Church’s response to Covid-19, during a formal meeting of the General Synod, held for the first time via Zoom, on Monday afternoon.
The Synod later carried his amended motion to: care for the bereaved and suffering, including disabled people; thank the NHS; lobby to eradicate social inequalities; preserve the foreign aid budget; and support the role of churches in maintaining mental and spiritual health.
Archbishop Cottrell said that several lessons had been learned by the Church and nation throughout the pandemic. First, “the NHS is deeply loved. We have also learned that it is the ideas behind the health service that are important and precious.” These ideas were not self-evidently true, he said, and were derived from the Christian faith.
“Secondly, the pandemic had revealed terrible inequalities. “The mortality rates from Covid-19 from the most deprived areas in the country are more than double those in the least deprived. . . This is scandalous. . .
“Inequalities of wealth and opportunity, poor housing, poor nutrition, prejudice, xenophobia: they are a scourge and a disgrace. The Church must point out these wrongs and provide a narrative of hope.”
A more “joined-up” Government was needed in Westminster and within the UK to address this, Archbishop Cottrell said. The pandemic had also revealed and was still revealing a “spiritual and religious illiteracy” and “spiritual longing” that the Church needed to speak into.
Praising the response of parishes and churches, particularly the boom in online worship, he urged: “Whatever our future holds we must continue to express our life in this digital landscape.”
Third, he said, “We have rediscovered the vital link between worship, spirituality, pastoral care, and evangelism. These should never have been separated.” In this second lockdown, church leaders had had to “push back to the Government to demonstrate that we, too, are an essential service”; that worship was not an “optional add on” but “iron rations for the Christian journey and the service we offer” (News, 13 November).
Moving his motion, he said: “We are able to do what we do because we are people who know and worship God. . . The deeper ailments in society that Covid-19 has revealed needs an injection of hope and that, brothers and sisters, is our main department.”
During the hour-long debate, most of which was taken up with amendments, Alison Coulter (Winchester) said that, while she missed her church community and regular worship, she was cautious that by making a “special case” to allow worship, the Church might be viewed as “not standing in solidarity with minorities and those who are shielding” or not prioritising the protection of the vulnerable.
The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, who is a member of the London Recovery Board for Covid-19, said that the voice of faith had been strong on mission in communities and disproportionalities. Faith leaders were now actively being asked by organisations to contribute to social issues.
An amendment to include disabled people in the motion was moved by the Revd Tim Good (Southwark), who said: “Let’s make explicit what I know is implicit.” Responding, Archbishop Cottrell apologised for the oversight and welcomed the amendment.
A further amendment from Mr Good sought to theologically underpin the motion. The theology of people being made in the image of God had been “diluted or ignored” with regards to disabled people, he said, who had had difficulty securing PPE, information, and medicines during the pandemic, and who had had DNR orders placed against their will. He described this as a “worrying slide into eugenics”. Two-thirds of people who had died of Covid-19 were disabled, he said.
This was also supported by Archbishop Cottrell, who then moved a further amendment from the Archbishops calling on the Government to preserve its foreign aid budget at 0.7 GDP (News, 20 November). “We won’t eradicate Covid-19 anywhere unless we eradicate everywhere; therefore our commitment to foreign aid has never been more important.”
The First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, said that this commitment was a “badge of honour” for the UK, and that it was the “right and smart thing” for the Government to uphold this. “Surely, we should keep our word to the nation,” she said. John Wilson (Lichfield), who did not support the amendment, said that the UK debt had to be reduced for the sake of “our children and grandchildren”. “We need to sort out our own house first.”
Responding to the whole debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed with many of the points that had been made and with the two amendments from Mr Good. He disagreed with Mr Wilson, saying that “virtue tomorrow was always virtue tomorrow and not virtue today”. He agreed that the Church had become a Church without walls.
The motion as amended was carried by 349 in favour; five against; with nine abstentions.
That this Synod, recognising the profound challenge to life and wellbeing posed by the Covid-19 pandemic:
(a) call upon the whole Church to hold in prayer all those ill, bereaved, unemployed or suffering mentally as a result of the virus, to pray for Her Majesty’s Government and all who hold responsibility for navigating the intractable dilemmas that Covid-19 poses;
(b) give thanks for the continuing selfless service of NHS and social care staff, scientists, and key workers in every sector, encouraging all to follow their example by affirming the common good over sectional interests;
(c) request the Church’s representatives, in conversations with Her Majesty’s Government, to press the case for reducing social inequalities, especially the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME people and children living in poverty, disabled people, elderly people and those living with chronic health conditions and to reflect concerns expressed by Synod in debate on this motion;
(d) express concern that the God given image, dignity and value of disabled and/or elderly people, including all those in residential care homes, are diminished when they are denied access to the same level of health care as the rest of the population.
(e) call on Her Majesty’s Government to preserve the United Kingdom’s foreign aid budget at 0.7% of GDP, sending a strong signal that the United Kingdom is a reliable partner for long-term economic, social, environmental and educational advancement across the globe.
(f) celebrate the role of churches in building mental and spiritual resilience to face the crisis and, affirming the role of worship and the sacraments as the source of Christian service and discipleship, call upon Her Majesty’s Government immediately to review the decision to curtail public worship during lockdown.’