THIS collection of essays from the Council for World Mission, a global partnership owned by the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, is part of their DARE programme: Discernment and Radical Engagement with God’s mission, and here in the context of the Covid pandemic. It has a radicalism that puts the Church of England in the shade, and a sharpness that arises from their Churches in the Majority World in a way that we experience far less from within the Anglican Communion.
Most of us in the UK simply want to get back to things as they were. There is nothing new about the normal that we crave. We accept that this will incur certain costs, but these can be paid by the poorer sections of our own community (through yet more inequality, the removal of the Universal Credit uplift, and a further degradation of public services) and by the people in poorer countries (through the cut in international aid and the consequences of our vaccine nationalism). The World Bank says that Covid will wipe away most of the advances in poverty reduction achieved in past decades.
Here in the UK, the very different ways in which it has affected children in private and state schools puts all talk of “levelling up” in perspective.
Last year António Guterres, UN secretary-general, likened the pandemic to an X-ray, revealing “the fractures and fallacies in the fragile skeletons of the societies we have built”. The contributors to this book come from a wide range of countries, where they have been working for gender equality, racial justice, eco-responsibility, and poverty-reduction, not as “woke” preferences, but arising from their commitment to joining what God is doing in the places where their Church is set.
There is analysis and poetry, rage and lament, and their overriding message is that the pandemic has opened up and exacerbated what God condemns.
Let me give just a few examples. From South Africa, Gerald West, who helped to shape the last Lambeth Conference, calls on the Churches to repent of “church theology” and embrace the “prophetic theology” found in the 1985 Kairos document.
From Brazil, Angelica Tostes sees spirituality as a path to resistance. K. Christine Pae brings an Asian feminist perspective, calling for transnational solidarity in the face of the protectionism and national isolationism that Covid has generated: should we talk of the kin-dom, not the Kingdom, of God? From the United States, where President Trump’s lassitude over Covid showed that he valued the economy before humanity, Benny Liew describes how grief and mourning can be productive in finding a new way forward.
There is only one contributor from the UK, Anthony Reddie, our foremost exponent of Black Theology. He rightly asks whether Covid would have been so significant had it been in the global South only. Yet he disputes the claim that it has been a great leveller, as shown by the disproportionate deaths of poor black people, here and overseas.
So he takes us back to where we were before the pandemic. He asks why we accept what he calls global neoliberal capitalism as normal, when it treats so many people as disposable. His answer is that we are still caught up in an English nationalism, rooted in our colonial and white supremacist past, helped by a mission Christianity with an often violent God.
Here in the UK we have perhaps two years before the next General Election. Are we resigned to returning to the old normal? Can the Opposition find an electable alternative? Will we in the Churches simply repeat the passive and largely ineffective stance that we adopted before other recent elections, or might we find the courage to propose a different future based on what we say we believe?
The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn and a former General Secretary of USPG.
Doing Theology in the New Normal: Global perspectives
Jione Havea, editor
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