In the second of two articles Edward Dowler looks back at responses to the pandemic


  The theological virtues

The use of fear to drive compliance has been well documented in the current crisis.  The tone was set early on by some now famous remarks from the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) in its paper on Options for Increasing Adherence to Social Distancing Measures.  The group commented that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened’, and that the ‘perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased… using hard-hitting emotional messaging’.  This perceived deficit of threat and fear was quickly and effectively made up, and the messaging has, ever since, been abundantly clear and well-aimed.

In the classical tradition, Aristotle was well aware that everyone is right to feel fear at certain times: ‘he would be a sort of madman or insensitive to pain if he feared nothing, neither earthquakes nor the waves’.  Only, he says, the lunatic Celts are entirely free from anxiety about such things.1  Influenced by Aristotle, the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas is that if you do not fear, then you cannot truly be courageous.  As one of his modern interpreters puts it, ‘fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude.  An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable.  To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound.  Since he is substantially vulnerable, man can be courageous’.2  

The Hungarian-Canadian economist Frank Furedi argues that what we now see is not simply fear as an emotion which is something that we cannot avoid and which certainly has its proper place, but fear is now the basis of whole a cultural orientation towards the world.  ‘It provides’, he writes, ‘the prism through which we interpret everyday experience.  It feeds risk-aversion, a heightened sense of vulnerability, a preoccupation with safety, and a lack of confidence towards the future’.3  ‘This is how freedom dies’, writes the historian and jurist Jonathan Sumption in his recent collection on Law in a Time of Crisis, ‘when societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat’.4  

So where I think the Church can and must offer an alternative perspective is that whilst it is entirely human to fear a nasty disease, and entirely right to make prudent assessments of risk in any circumstances we might face, we cannot allow ourselves to be primarily driven by fear and concerns about safety.  Here is a well known passage from the first letter of John:  

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4.16-18)

Following St Paul, Aquinas teaches that the primary motivators in the Christian life are not fear and the desire for safety at all costs, but the moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and, crucially in this case, fortitude, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  It is these that should primarily guide our actions.  These virtues can to some extent be cultivated, but the theological virtues in particular are works of God’s grace, which are infused into us, so that they move us from within, and enable us to act not under sufferance but gladly and willingly.5  God’s grace acting within us does not take away our more animal urges, such as hunger, fear or physical attraction – since these are part of our created nature and therefore God-given.  All of them have their place and all of them are in their ways necessary to us as human persons.  But possession of the virtues brings about harmony between our natural urges and the reason that tells us what is right and what is good for us: something that we see pre-eminently in the human nature of Christ, who, though he had full, strong, human passions or emotions, always acted virtuously.6  

So my third picture is a renewed Christian psychology in which fear is put in its proper place, and its current dominance gives way to motivation by the theological virtues and the accompanying gifts of the Holy Spirit as the proper drivers of Christian life.


Sacramental Life

The penultimate picture I would like to re-frame and re-hang is that of the physical proximity of Christians and more widely the sacramental life of the Church, by contrast with chilling predictions such as ‘social distancing is here to stay’.

My wonderful New Testament tutor at theological college, John Sweet, had a story about the time when the exchange of the Peace was introduced into modern Anglican liturgies.  If I’m recalling correctly, one of the bishops assembled an anthology of comments that people had written to him about why they didn’t like exchanging the Peace at the Eucharist.  Each one was illustrated by a cartoonist.  The objections were things like, ‘the man standing next to me has sweaty hands’ or ‘my neighbour in the pew has bad breath’.  Nowadays without a doubt one of them would be ‘I might catch Covid’.  But the final comment in the book was that of a lady who had written in to say, ‘it’s the only time in the week that anybody ever touches me’, and this comment made all the foregoing ones somewhat collapse.  Now is not the time to launch into a defence of the exchange of the Peace in the liturgy, about which there are of course differences of view.  However, the practice does emphasise the fact that the body of Christ is most actually and truly present when believers are physically close to one another.7  

In this regard, safeguarding failures in the Church do of course teach us to be very careful.  In my own diocese, to our enduring shame, a number of people, including various clergy, have horrendously abused the opportunities for physical proximity that church life provides in order to perpetrate sexual abuse.  On the other hand, I believe that we also have to resist the opposite temptation: to shun the physical proximity of our brothers and sisters on the grounds that they are potential vectors of disease; to accept the line that, even at a time when a serious respiratory virus is circulating, that I am potentially toxic to everybody else and that they are toxic to me.

A key question here seems to me to be the very contested one of asymptomatic transmission, and the extent to which people who are ostensibly healthy are actually likely to infect others.  I am not qualified to comment on this, but I believe we can still note that fear of asymptomatic transmission opens up a potentially very frightening way to start regarding our brothers and sisters.  Our physical proximity may indeed always put us in some danger of transmitting germs to one another, but we cannot lightly set aside the gifts that we gain by physical closeness to our brothers and sisters in the Christian community.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of this in Life Together, his classic work on the nature of Christian community (apologies in advance for the non-gender inclusive language):

The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.  Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures.  The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, son and Holy Spirit for the bodily presence of a brother.  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.  Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.8

Closely related to the physical meeting of believers is the wider question of the sacramental life of the Church.  There have of course been many debates on social media and elsewhere about the merits of ‘in-person worship’ (yuk); whether ‘online church’ is as good as ‘onsite church’ (double yuk); whether bread and wine can be consecrated over Zoom, and so on.  Whilst many people may yearn, as I do, for a past when these subjects were never considered, the greater challenge is surely that we need the picture to be re-framed and re-hung.  We now need a revitalised sense of the potency and importance of the sacraments of the Church, celebrated – as they can only be – in the physical assembly of believers.  If, as the Bath and Wells document that I quoted earlier is correct, the ‘lived experience’ of many is that celebrating the sacraments of the Church has become joyless and onerous, the solution is surely not, as the authors seem to suggest, to consign Christ’s gifts to the dustbin.  Rather it must be to find a renewed and refreshed sense of their centrality, their importance and their life-giving power, of the multitude of believers thronging together to the house of God, ‘in the voice of praise and thanksgiving, among such as keep holy-day’ (Ps 42.5).  For where do we find the Church?  In a very particular place, wrote the Danish Lutheran bishop, Bo Giertz (1905-1998):

The Church is and exists, first and foremost, in that moment when the bishop as a heavenly instrument stands in his congregation’s midst and celebrates the liturgical mysteries, full of joy and light and life. In this way the Church is for these people the shining city on a hill, whose walls are always brilliant with light… Here I understood better than ever the very nature of the Church: she is not an institution for grievances, not a protest organization, nor a device for social improvements or any other ‘goal’; she is the heavenly joy’s sanctuary, in which we enter, filled with overwhelming joy…9


Eternal Life

The fifth and final picture that I would like to re-frame and re-hang is our Christian hope in eternal life: for a future that lies beyond death.  I believe it is striking that various scientific writers such as Karol Sikora and John Lee who have questioned the official response to Covid have commented at various times that death has been the great unspoken reality that our society has been fearful of addressing.  Similarly, the historian Tom Holland – a sympathetic observer of Christianity – laments the fact that in this crisis the Church 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’.10 

It is not easy to talk about the hope of eternal life, because it is easily derided as ‘pie in the sky when you die’, and many people in modern western society have largely not only lost any such hope but, as those who officiate at funerals know only too well, are completely uninterested in thinking about it.  And yet our belief in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come is surely the message that our society desperately needs.  For the fact that people perceive physical death as completely final surely lies at the root of our highly anxious, fearful, risk-averse culture.  For if this life is the only one 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.

This is of course not to denigrate those who work in to preserve and sustain human life which of course has a God-given value.  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)

I would like to finish by referring to a broadcast that was made in the late 1960s by the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI.  In words that seem to me extraordinarily prescient, if not prophetic, he predicts something that I think may be happening now, although it was what he predicted for the somewhat earlier date of 2000AD. ‘From the crisis of today’, he writes, ‘the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much’.  The Church will, Ratzinger argues, for sure be smaller and humbler, but it will be tempered by suffering, and start to live again out of the purity of its faith.  As I have suggested, I believe that this church will rejoice in the beauty and the transparency of the uncovered human face, in the solemn, yet exuberant song that will constantly sustain her worship; in the theological virtues as the true motivators of fulfilled human life which will drive away the pervasive sense of oppression and fear; and in the physical closeness of Christians as they celebrate together the life-giving sacraments of the new covenant.  Most of all, perhaps, the Church will never lose sight of her future hope, and find renewed ways to offer it to the world.  

In a totally planned world, people will find themselves unspeakably lonely.  If they have completely lost sight of God, thy will feel the whole horror of their poverty.  Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new.  They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching… (the Church) may well no longer be the dominant social power… but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.11


The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings. A version of this article was delivered as The Peter Toon Memorial Lecture at Pusey House in May, 2021


1 Nicomachean Ethics, 3.7.

2 Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, p. 24-5.

3 Furedi, Why Lockdown has become a Lifestyle, Spiked Online, 30 April, 2021.

4 Sumption, Law in a Time of Crisis, p. 231.

5 Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology, p. 205.

6 Cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology, p. 203.

7 See Rom 16.16; 1 Cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.12; 1 Thess 5.26; 1 Pet 5.14.

8 Bonhoeffer, Life Together (SCM), p. 9.

9 My italics.  Unfortunately I cannot find the source of this quotation.

10 Tom Holland, Church Leaders should not be talking like middle managers in this time of crisis: Daily Telegraph, 3 May, 2020.

11 Ratzinger, Faith in the Future, p. 118