Edward Dowler considers the church in lockdown

The mantra stay at home; protect the NHS; save lives, although recently modified at the time of writing this article, has become more than familiar over the past few weeks.  We have seen it plastered on to street signs and podiums, and heard it drummed into our heads through endless repetition by politicians, health experts and indeed bishops.

It’s probably a deficient side to my character, but whenever I hear a slogan being pushed at me in quite such a remorseless way, I feel stirrings of rebellion.  And whilst I appreciate the importance of such clear and simple message in a time of emergency, I also think it is good for Christians to be aware of ways in which we might both question it and seek to go beyond it.

Stay at home

The lockdown of this and many other countries was, of course, introduced with much consideration and, in the case of the UK government, with apparent reluctance.  We need to pray for those entrusted with such weighty decisions.  Early on in the crisis, the Dominican scholar Fr Thomas Joseph White argued in the journal First Things, in opposition to some of his more libertarian colleagues, that this decision had been both necessary and right.  ‘In requesting a thoroughgoing but temporary quarantine,’ White wrote, ‘governments across the world are following both traditional time-tested procedure and proven scientific advice.  In doing so they are acting in accord with human inclinations to protect life that are both basic and intrinsically good, even ineradicably so, despite the effects of sin on political organisations’. (Thomas Joseph White, Epidemic Danger and Catholic Sacraments: First Things, 9 April 2020.)

A nationwide, and indeed international, lockdown is however an extraordinarily blunt instrument with which to combat a specific virus.  And whilst I do not think I can entirely identify with so-called lockdown sceptics in their confident proclamation that ‘the cure is worse than the disease’, I am certainly glad that such voices exist.

For middle class people such as myself who live in nice houses with big gardens, country walks on the doorstep and a contented family life, many aspects of the lockdown have been quite pleasant.  But this experience is completely overshadowed as one starts to consider the consequences of this policy: the severe economic downturn with consequent unemployment that now beckons; the harm already caused to the mental and physical health of many people; the rise in domestic abuse; a generation of children deprived of months in education; elderly people in abject misery and loneliness, and the greatest infringement of civil liberties that we have seen in modern times.  In the context of all this, I am glad that we have people challenging the reasons for these measures and insisting that they should not carry on for a moment longer than necessary.

In the Church of England we have had a parallel group: church closure sceptics from all shades of theological opinion, who asked persistently why it was necessary for the archbishops and bishops to go beyond government guidance (and indeed canon law) and insist that church buildings should entirely closed for several weeks.  On a YouTube video in early April, the Archbishop of Canterbury explained the reasons why he thought some of us had raised such questions: ‘they range from conspiracy ideas that we’ve always really wanted to, through to comments about obsession with health and safety and all this sort of thing’.  I for one believe that this entirely misrepresented my reason for being a church closure sceptic.  Primarily, it was because I believe our churches should be living, thriving centres of worship and mission which point towards Christ in their local communities, and are as open as possible – even in times of necessarily restricted conditions.

Protect the NHS

The second part of the mantra is one that I have kept on finding somewhat counter-intuitive.  The NHS is there to protect us: so it is an odd, although in the circumstances understandable, decision to reverse this and say that we should now be protecting it.

Of course, we enter into very sensitive territory here because nobody would want to deny that doctors, nurses and many other health care workers have done sacrificial and often heroic work throughout the crisis.  I believe that we should thank God for them and give them all the praise and applause that is due.  The NHS, however, is not the individual health workers but an institution that organises healthcare in this country in a particular way.  And, because it is a human institution, like all others it is imperfect.  So, whilst we may be concerned to protect hospitals from becoming overrun at the current time, this should not be conflated with automatic and unquestioning allegiance to the NHS as an institution for evermore.  After the rational examination that will hopefully take place in due course, it may – or may not – turn out that other systems would have been more fit for purpose and that changes can and should be made.  

Most of all, we should surely resist what sometimes comes uncomfortably close to setting up the National Health Service as an idol.  An example of this disappointingly came from the Prime Minister himself who, after his discharge from hospital, told the nation that ‘our NHS is the beating heart of this country…. It is unconquerable.  It is powered by love’.

This is an extraordinary thing to say at Easter and I believe Christians must be clear that we cannot support it.  To rephrase Mr Johnson’s words, we will rather say that God the Father is the loving, creative centre of all being and life; that Jesus His Son has risen unconquerable from the tomb; and that the Holy Spirit pours love into our hearts’.  Worship of the NHS – or of any other alternative national religion – will never bring salvation, nor provide rest for any human heart.

Save lives 

As I have already noted, we can and should applaud and pray for those who work to save and prolong people’s lives.  At the same time, however, the particular calling of the Church in this sort of crisis is surely to point people towards the eternal hope of a life beyond death: a fact that has been  accentuated by the fact that this crisis has taken place during Eastertide – the season of the resurrection.  Since, in catholic theology, grace builds on nature: it is quite possible – and indeed necessary – to affirm and applaud the natural efforts of those who use human skills to save and prolong life, whilst at the same time pointing towards a supernatural hope.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph, the historian Tom Holland acknowledges that the Church through the ages has often taken the lead in caring for the weak and the vulnerable when no one else would do so, but he laments the fact that in this crisis she has not spoken more confidently into the public square about the hope of eternal life. ‘The welfare state can provide care for the sick,’ Holland writes, ‘but it cannot provide what Christianity, over the past 2,000 years, has provided to so many countless people, and to such transformational effect: an explanation for the existence of suffering that offers the assurance as well that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’. (Tom Holland, Church Leaders should not be talking like middle managers in this time of crisis: Daily Telegraph, 3 May, 2020.)

Of course, modern western society has largely lost this hope and, as those who officiate at funerals know only too well, many seem to have very little interest in it.  And yet this, rather than ‘save lives’, is the message that our society desperately needs.  For the fact that people perceive physical death as their final end surely lies at the bottom of the highly anxious, fearful, risk-averse culture that we now inhabit – and which has caused widespread fear of post-lockdown life as well as chilling predictions such as ‘social distancing is here to stay’.  For if this life is the only life we shall ever have, it is only logical to be extremely fearful about losing it.  And it is precisely here that the Christian faith opens up a different perspective that is full of hope and promise.

The gospels show us Jesus throughout his ministry constantly seeking to protect human life; to feed people, heal them and raise them up; occasionally he even restores the dead to mortal life.  And yet, in some stark sayings in all four gospels, the Lord who would rise from the dead teaches his followers that our mortal life is not the only one we shall ever have, and that we do not therefore need anxiously to give it an ultimacy that it does not deserve, for ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (Jn 12.25, cf. Mt 10.39; Mk 8.35; Lk 9.24)

It was not wrong to espouse the message stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives, and yet this message is far from the fullness of what as Christians we are called upon to say – and hopefully now we will say with increasing confidence and clarity.

The Venerable Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings.