This time three years ago, I put in a rather jolly column using characters from Molesworth to take the mickey out of certain types on General Synod. The following month, my April column, written in mid-March, commented that, following advice (not, at that point, an instruction) from the hierarchy, we at St Alban’s Holborn had stopped administering the Chalice to the congregation and exchanging the sign of peace. I said I was afraid that, come Good Friday, the chances of us coming to kiss the Cross would be pretty slim.
Over the weekend of Lent 3, we went to Walsingham for the Children’s Pilgrimage, on a crowded train from Kings Cross. That pilgrimage was pretty much the last ‘normal’ thing we did in parish life; the following Sunday was distinctly abnormal, and the day afterwards we were required to close our churches and cease public worship. I wrote a note in my diary on that date (23rd March): ‘The suspension of our civil liberties’. In fact, society had been closed down by decree. The Statutory Instrument to shut businesses was laid before Parliament on that day, but its commencement date was two days before anyone, including Parliament, saw it. And the Regulations that superseded it, which locked us in our homes and closed our churches, were not laid before Parliament until 2.30 pm on Thursday 26th March, to come into force an hour and a half earlier.
I find it interesting to note how little we are talking about all this. Memory is a funny thing, and perhaps we just don’t want to have to call it back to mind. We are, however, using ‘Covid’ as a marker of time. Did a particular event take place before, during, or after Covid, we might say. But I don’t think we should forget too easily.
I’d like to revisit a lecture by the Archdeacon of Hastings, Fr Edward Dowler, which he gave in May 2021 in Oxford. He quoted a Dominican theologian called Fr Thomas White, who maintained early in the closure that ‘whatever the particular parameters of a given culture and its safety or threat from the virus, the Church’s suspension of public sacramental practice cannot be of indefinite duration’. And he contrasted that with the Diocese of Bath and Wells, which claimed that ‘Both clergy and lay people [had] expressed relief at the absence of the weekly routine of Sunday services’, and that the ‘duty’ had evidently become ‘onerous’.
Fr Dowler went on to speak of his concern, which I shared and about which he and I spoke often, about whether our national response was proportional, effective, and, even if both proportional and effective, justifiable. We both worried about the undermining of personal communication and relationships caused by the compulsory masking, and Fr Dowler quoted another Dominican, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, as saying ‘We are the body of Christ and so we must be his face. In Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, the priest calls the human face ‘the mirror image of God.’ We are smiled upon by the invisible God and this is mirrored in our faces.’
The Archdeacon also spoke movingly about singing, and I wrote about that in December, specifically in the context of a study which clearly showed that the ban was neither proportional nor effective. He went on to speak about the injunction to keep six feet away from each other, and on the use of fear to drive compliance. He said, ‘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’. He quoted from the first letter of S John: perfect love casts out fear. I was more blunt in my column of June 2020—‘decisions that affect everybody need to be based on facts not fear’—and in September, ’The world is governed by fear at the moment, because the world, or the western world at any rate, has come to believe that death is the end. It is worth living indoors and in fear in order to put off the end.’ And yet, ‘Behold our end, which is no end,’ as St Augustine said.
What I think upsets me most looking back at it all is how terribly secular the response was, not just from the state, but also from the churches. ‘Fear not, little flock,’ says the Lord, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ The very business of meeting together physically is part of our being the Body of Christ. Watching mass on a computer screen is not being at mass. Or, as Fr Dowler put it rather more subtly, ‘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.’
Indeed. Being part of the Mystical Body raises our thoughts beyond this life, and ‘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’. The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal.