Christopher Smith wonders whether fear is getting the better of us
All this hoo-ha in recent months has closed plenty of doors, of which more later, but it has opened a few as well. Many of us have had to adjust to participating in meetings held via our computers, which seems to me significantly inferior to being in a room with people and being able to read their body language and other tell-tale signs as to what they might be feeling and thinking. But a small compensation is being able to note where people position their cameras, and therefore what we can see about their homes. Like a good many others, mine points in the direction of the main set of bookshelves in my study, which I thought would give an impression of bookishness and studiousness, the parish priest in his den, where sermons and articles are written, and serious thoughts are thought.
I will, no doubt, have to answer for my vanity in due course, but others have paid a price already for this modern form of image-consciousness. It was perhaps inevitable, given the way we live now, that those who spend their time hoping to be offended by things would find something to be offended by on the bookshelves of politicians with whose politics they disagree. As they must know perfectly well, the presence of a book on one’s shelf does not signify agreement with its content, but might just as easily indicate a desire to test one’s ideas against someone else’s. I’ve got books on my shelves by a number of theologians with whom I profoundly disagree, but it would be unwise to suspect me of being a secret follower of John A.T. Robinson or E.W. Barnes.
Testing an argument used to be part of the job of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition in Parliament, and be carried out equally enthusiastically by the fearless and independent journalists of the Fourth Estate, among many others. To be honest, I would have appreciated a bit more of it in the course of the epidemic of SARS-CoV-2, or whatever we must call it to avoid the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party. The attempt to mitigate the consequences of this bug has led to a coach and horses being driven through most of the human rights that we have spent centuries working for, often at tremendous cost. What needs testing is the assumption that having those rights suspended was worth it in mid-March, and is still worth it as I write in mid-May. And one of those rights, closely allied to freedom of association (which we do not have at the moment) is freedom to practise our religion. It’s there in article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK statute law in the Human Rights Act 1998, but present in English law long before that. You know, only too painfully, that, at the moment, you are not allowed to go to mass.
The testing of that state of affairs has been almost entirely absent. A number of clergy have been justifiably vocal in speaking out against being told/ ordered/ advised/ requested not to go into their own churches for any purpose other than to check that it hasn’t been vandalised, but that seems to me to be tinkering about the edges of a bigger question. A column expressing my astonishment at the contradictory instructions and handbrake turns of policy emanating from the hierarchy would have been too easy to write. I’m not inclined to dignify all that even by mocking it. But by now, surely, the bishops should be pushing hard for the restoration of public worship. They have twenty-six places in Parliament, for goodness sake, yet have only seemed to manage to pull off the glorious achievement of creating provision under section 84 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 for the postponement of elections to the General Synod.
We are currently in the absurd position whereby the people of God can go to work in a factory, or to shop in a supermarket, or to browse round a garden centre or a house for sale, but cannot even enter a church building, let alone be at mass. As the number of infections falls and falls, and with more and more comparators available from other countries where restrictions have been eased which can give us clues as to the likelihood of a second ‘wave’ of hospitalisations, surely the time has come for our bishops very publically to be raising the matter. Perhaps they have been doing so behind the scenes, but maybe we need to remind them about the significance of the physical nature of the sacraments, and that we do not partake of the sacraments by watching broadcast liturgies. Broadcasts are better than nothing, but the Body of Christ meets, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. It is in the sacraments, and most particularly at mass, that we meet Christ, together, as Christians always have. Priests are profoundly privileged at the moment in being able to receive the Body of Christ because they can celebrate mass without a congregation, but without the Body of Christ assembled, there is an incompleteness in the sacramental life with is painful for us all.
We learn more about this virus every day, but are we putting that knowledge into effect? And are we treating people as adults? People are capable of making rational decisions about safety, and they are capable of weighing risk. I imagine that if I were a Roman Catholic I wouldn’t be pressing for the restoration of the Sunday obligation yet; many folk will feel too nervous to do anything much outside the home at all, reasonably enough. But decisions that affect everybody need to be based on facts not fear. Are they being?