COVID-19 was in charge of the show throughout 2020. It ran the world ragged. Once the vaccine has brought the virus under some measure of control, we must face the deep damage that this has done to our humanity. The virus has both attacked fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, and also brutally exposed the weaknesses in our culture and our social and communal experience.
The pandemic has brought two words together in our vocabulary: “social” and “distancing”. These are pulling in opposite directions. The damage was poignantly revealed in a recent newspaper front-page picture of an older woman kneeling outside the fence of a care home to communicate with her husband in a wheelchair on the other side. To embrace, hold hands, and sit together are all forbidden under the restrictions. Thus, people’s well-being is deteriorating. We are denied the sharing of our humanity one with another. Our physical, mental, and spiritual health has been attacked and undermined.
The celebration of love in the rites of marriage is either not allowed or severely restricted. So many have not been able to grieve for loved ones and friends at their funeral. In church, we are masked, and have, until recently, been unable to express what is in our hearts and spirits in song and in expressions of fellowship together. The fundamental characteristics of what human living is about have been taken from us.
Many hope that, once this is all over, we can resume life as we knew it. The trouble is that the virus has taken a crowbar to the wall of our culture, found the cracks, and brutally prised them open. Issues from our past now stare us in the face. The inequalities, injustices, and social exclusions that we have all lived with have been laid bare. Growing numbers of children and families find it hard to meet the basic needs of living; elderly people struggle to survive without adequate care and support; BAME people, many of them on the front line of public services, bear a disproportionate risk of catching the virus and dying.
The challenge is made much more difficult by the economic realities. A combination of Covid and Brexit will eat away at the securities that many have had in employment, housing, and planning for the future. The process of change will be very painful, and the most at risk are most likely to suffer the worst of the disruption and change. At least we know that there is no possibility of returning to the past. A tough task is on us all: how to shape our common life so that we can protect our most vulnerable neighbours.
RECENTLY, I watched a film about the life and music of Miles Davis. One of the contributors commented that his music was “democratic”. At its best, jazz offers a different way of working together. It arises mostly from the grass-roots of marginalised communities. It is to be found in the small clubs and pubs of our cities, maintaining its historic roots in black culture in the United States. It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down movement, which widens its appeal.
Great jazz arises from the soul. It is innovative, free-flowing, and depends on the trust of the group in what each brings to the music. Thus, it has leadership, but no conductor. The music passes the lead from instrument to instrument, and no repeat performance is the same as what has gone before.
Might this be a model for the sort of world that we need to move into today: diverse, non-hierarchical, open, and building community from the bottom up, and a world in which people and their passions are taken seriously?
The problem is that we have still not exorcised the old rigid, hierarchical, and deferential society of our past, and, with it, the desire for power and position. As Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), inequality in all contexts has grown alarmingly. Power still lies in the hands of the few. The task will be to challenge not only the indices of economic poverty and exclusion, but also the imbalances of power: democracy in practice at the grass-roots of our culture.
OUR churches face similar realities. There are the immediate and surface issues: money, buildings, governance, clergy vocation, and formation. The life and vibrancy of the gospel is in the hearts and lives of the people.
The agenda is not how we shore up the institution as it is: it is about how we affirm and liberate the life and hopes of the whole baptised community in the service of the whole human community.
Often at great cost, that is what has been happening as people fight the ill that the pandemic has done. The seeds of a fresh, egalitarian, open, flexible, and liberating community are being sown now. Is this what the Spirit is saying to us as we hope to emerge from this pandemic?
The Rt Revd John Gladwin, a former Bishop of Chelmsford, is an assistant bishop in the diocese of St Albans.