Today, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London have joined other faith community senior leaders in calling on the Prime Minister to make a U-turn and allow public worship to continue in the second, coming lockdown.
I am utterly torn by this, as to be fair I am sure they are too.
On the one hand, I agree with them that faith is not a private matter; that our places of worship are ‘Covid secure,’ with no scientific evidence that the virus is being spread through public worship [though, we have no means of collecting such evidence]; that there is research-based evidence supporting the positive benefits to mental and emotional health; and that our corporate worship is significant in sustaining our service to the wider community at this time, through for example, food banks, or any of the £12bn worth of social value contributed by the Church not counting the support offered by other faiths.
On the other hand, these things are not exclusively true of faith communities; special pleading undermines solidarity, in deeply damaging ways; and I do not believe that public worship is essential to what constitutes and sustains us. If that were so, one could not speak of the Church in China, or Iran.
Christian faith, like Judaism, is grounded in love of God and neighbour, with special attention to justice and mercy. Both traditions stand on prayer and service of our fellow human beings in the mending of a torn world, and these things can be done in the temporary absence of public worship. And from a specifically Christian perspective, it is the person of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who constitutes and sustains us, not our ability to gather together.
Islam is also rooted in prayer and a concern for one’s neighbour, and while corporate payer is foundational, it too recognises that circumstances may exempt believers from certain practices. Indeed, all faiths have had to adapt to circumstances, throughout history. And we are living in a pandemic that is uncontained.
I am torn, also, because it is exhausting to have to form and hold parallel plans: for gathering in one physical space; and for gathering in time held in common but across various spaces. This week is exhausting.
None of this is to criticise the senior Church leaders listed above, nor in search of pity for a poor vicar, but, rather, a recognition that life is often and for many a torn reality. To give just one other example, this will be true of many voting in the USA this November.
How, then, ought we to live? Firstly, by acknowledging that this is so, including creating safe spaces to express the pain of it all, to lament.
Then, by seeking to be gentler, with ourselves and towards others. Recognising that those days when we can operate at fresh-out-of-the-box full capacity are not the default days against which we should measure expectations, but gifts to be enjoyed when we do experience them.
Finally, to recognise that different people will hold different views and reach different conclusions; that this will always be the case, and it does not make them—or us—villains; but it does add to the complexity of life—which, in turn, brings us back to lament and gentleness.