IS THERE any possibility of reaching our sanitised hands across the aisle in what we hope and pray will be the final throes of the pandemic?
For some, the non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) of the past year, such as lockdowns, social distancing, masks, etc., have been self-evidently necessary to prevent a disaster even greater than the one we have actually seen. Others — me included — have questioned whether such measures were proportionate to the actual risk, effective in what they sought to achieve, or, in some cases, whether they could ever be morally justified. Perhaps we will one day definitively know the truth of these things, and perhaps we won’t.
Christ is our cornerstone, who holds together divergent parts of a living temple (Ephesians 2.20; Psalm 118.22). Looking to him, Christians might eschew increasingly polarised debates in this and other areas, and look, instead, at what binds us together as we emerge from a pandemic that has, in many ways, eviscerated the life of the Church.
Here are five things that I believe we might all agree that we love and value, and appreciate afresh.
THE first is the beauty and value of the human face, which we are now so used to seeing covered up. The old pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says: “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and the loneliness.”
In contrast with the faceless and impersonal “god of the philosophers”, the God of the Bible has a face that we can seek (Psalm 27.8), that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4.6), and that we will see one day in face-to-face vision of the Lord (1 Corinthians 13.12). As a corollary to this, the God of the Bible sees the infinitely varied faces of each of his human children, knowing and valuing our uniqueness and individuality: “Behold our shield, O God: look on the face of your anointed’ (Psalm 84.9).
Second, as restrictions are further lifted, we will gain a new delight in the song of the Church, sensing how integral it is to Christian worship: a perception shared, despite their very different musical styles, by Orthodox and many Evangelical Christians.
“How intensely I was moved by the lovely harmonies of your singing Church!” wrote one famous convert. For St Augustine of Hippo, singing is no optional extra, but central, because it moves us to love, and love is the power that impels us wherever we go. His well-known teaching that “if we receive the eucharist worthily, we become what we receive” is matched by a perception that, as we sing praise to God, “the singer himself is the praise contained in the song.”
Third, a renewed Christian psychology will move us away from our current mindset in which fear sits in the driving seat. In her recent book, A State of Fear (Pinter & Martin), the journalist and photographer Laura Dodsworth has charted the techniques that the UK and other governments have used — some will say, justifiably — to heighten deliberately the public sense of fear in response to the pandemic.
Christians know of something very different that moves us: a perfect love that casts out fear. As St Thomas Aquinas teaches (following St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13), it is not fear, but the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love that are the proper, God-given drivers of Christian life.
The physical proximity of Christians and the sacramental life of the Church is a fourth gift to reclaim joyfully. In the past year, there have been important advances in online prayer, study, and pastoral support; but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his classic work on the Christian community, Life Together, our physical closeness to one another is a wonderful and irreplaceable sign of God’s presence: “The believer . . . lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the bodily presence of a brother or sister. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the glorious presence of the triune God.”
A FIFTH and final theme is the message of eternal life which we bear as an Easter people. As those who officiate at funerals know only too well, it is not an easy one to get across, since many people in modern society are apparently uninterested.
But perhaps there is now more of an open door: writers as diverse as the historian Tom Holland and the scientist Karol Sikora have pointed out that fear of death has been the great and largely unspoken reality in this crisis; and one that the Church is uniquely placed to address.
If we can find renewed ways of talking about our hope for what lies beyond it — something about which we seem to have been strangely reticent during the past year — we may, to our surprise, find a new traction in a nervous and fearful post-pandemic world.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough, in Chichester diocese. This article is based on the Peter Toon Memorial Lecture, given at Pusey House, Oxford, on 19 May, and available on YouTube.