RELIGION at its worst, and at its best. The magnificent three-part series Pandemic 2020 (BBC2, 1, 8, and 15 April) told the story so far of Covid-19 through a palimpsest of personal testimonies, garnered from around the globe.
A sparky young couple from Wuhan shared their personal videos of the virus’s developing, the authorities’ initial denial transforming into absolute lockdown, and then their astonishment that Western countries, with China’s example clearly before them, did not act with commensurate dispatch.
We followed the diary of a doctor from Leamington Spa, a nurse from Milan, and a most impressive council worker from Colombia. The last of these told us how the disease had, first, revealed the hitherto unrealised scale of his city’s overcrowding and deprivation — and then offered a vision of co-operation, mutual support, communal singing, and dancing, even, in the face of death.
The third programme focused on reactions of faith. A Charismatic fundamentalist pastor in the United States led his flock in total denial, refusing to comply with any lockdown regulations. In his black-and-white world, it gave him the chance to revel in public martyrdom: the whole thing was a “politically motivated hoax”, a ploy dreamed up by the godless liberal media in their opposition to his hero, Donald Trump.
We found far more responsible and advanced thinking in the remote Amazonian village that, taking it very seriously indeed, was prepared to suffer isolation to contain the infection, and developed its communal religious rituals to minimise contact. A Muslim social worker from Harrow found the exercise of his faith greatly deepened: at personal risk, he now shares in the ritual washing of bodies, visits widows and orphans, and brings food to the housebound.
Was it originally planned as a sop to UK Christians, marking Holy Week with a little direct religion? If so, the scheduling of BBC1’s documentaries Being Muslim/Sikh/Hindu/Jewish, went askew, as Being Christian, instead of opening the series, was relegated to 11.25 p.m. on Easter Tuesday: a slot surely guaranteeing the target audience’s absence. For non-Christians, this depiction of a range of UK adherents offered no single overarching thread; and so, to that extent, it was entirely accurate.
The Roman Catholic mother (Extraordinary Form Latin mass) who, in the birth of her latest child, “offered each contraction to God”, shared little with the young woman baptised by total immersion in the Salford Pentecostal church, or with Rebecca and John, who were preparing for their church wedding in Manchester. Speaking more directly to me was the requiem mass for June, one of the first women priests, commended to God after what her son described as a wholly committed life of ministry in Stockton-on-Tees, centred on the eucharist.
But we heard no radical voice, no affirmation that, for example, political, gender, and racial action derive legitimately from the teaching and person of Jesus Christ.