Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Reflections on a second lockdown

On Saturday night a priest posted that one hour after the new restrictions were announced, Anglican Twitter was looking for loopholes. It started me wondering why, and caused me to scrap what I was going to say in my All Saints' Day sermon and hastily put something else together. The problem (as with many arguments between clergy - especially online) is that several issues get bundled up together in one argument, and we sometimes talk across each other, rather than tease out a question. The same thing happened during the earlier lockdown, which I wrote about at the time.

This time around, I have noticed three themes cropping up regularly:

  • Churches need to meet for congregational worship (and many focus on holy communion here) in order to nurture the spiritual lives of their people. Suspending services will be detrimental.
  • A resistance to the government telling the church that it can't meet for worship, along with criticism of the C of E bishops for not protesting loudly enough. Faith leaders, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have now written a joint letter on this subject, which you can read here.
  • Concern that lockdown will have a damaging impact on all aspects of the well-being of our society. 
First of all, it is undeniable that these concerns are not trivial; they are real and substantial. As a parish priest I would much rather be in a context where we could be running a full range of services of worship, Messy Church, Toddler Praise, and our drop in tea and cake session for older people, etc. It would be great to see the cafes and pubs open and thriving, and people secure about their futures. I don't want to live in lockdown any more than some of my more vociferous colleagues, but unlike them, I do think it is a necessary evil.

Let's consider those concerns. Earlier in the year, churches went without meeting from mid-March until services began to resume in July. We missed some of the most important celebrations in the Christian year - Holy Week, Easter, Ascension & Pentecost. Here at St Nicholas' we maintained a weekly online worship, we emailed, phoned round, and also posted services, messages and prayers. We ran quizzes, prayers and courses on Zoom, and when we were able to come together again, our numbers were soon getting back towards normal, with a few vulnerable people staying in touch watching the recording of the service. 

This time around, the lockdown will cover 4 Sundays, unless circumstances require an extension, and the terms are somewhat less strict than last time. Clergy can still go into their buildings to record services, and funerals are permitted in our buildings. We can also continue to open up to enable people to pray. That is why I am struggling to see why this merits so much more protest than last time.

However, the problem now is that faith communities were not consulted, whereas during the first lockdown, the Archbishops saw cooperation as part of the national effort. That leaves me wondering whether 'this is not about that'. Perhaps the protests are less about the effect of suspending services per se and more about the lack of consultation, otherwise we should have been shouting much more loudly in March/April. I'll soon write some more about the issue of corporate worship and lockdown, but for now I would simply observe that faith communities proved very resilient during the long break. We share a sense that our security ultimately derives from something beyond ourselves and all of our activities or rituals.

Related to that is the unease a number of people feel about freedom to worship. A government banning gatherings for worship is not a comfortable scenarios, and in other contexts would be (and in some locations is) very sinister. However, despite my lack of trust in the Prime Minister in many ways, I don't think the elimination of faith communities is on his agenda. Places of worship are not being singled out here - lots of other clubs, associations, businesses and activities are also affected. The issue for us to watch is that, once the emergency is over, those freedoms are restored and full democratic accountability is back in place for this and future governments.

For me the biggest concern is the impact that lockdown will have on wider society. Businesses are in difficulty with jobs, livelihoods, and homes put at risk. Social life is effectively suspended, isolation inevitably follows, and with dark nights that is made all the worse. I fear that mental health problems will inevitably become more widespread as a consequence.

This latter point certainly merits some noise from faith leaders. There are some really good charitable efforts going on around the country to support people in all kinds of need at this time, including many originating in churches. However, it is government that can make the real difference - whether with meal vouchers, furlough, business support or boosting funding to mental health services. Holding our leaders to account for how they are sustaining our nation's life at this time is a crucial contribution we all can make.

For all my scepticism about the competence of our leaders, I am sufficiently convinced that infection rates are rising, and that without substantial action, the graphs for new infections, hospital admissions and ICU occupancy will go beyond what the NHS can handle. Lockdown is a very costly option, and whilst I think that action could have been taken sooner and for a shorter duration, I still believe that it is the best available choice in the circumstances. 

As I looked around my church on All Saints' Day I saw a lot of older people, some of whom have significant health challenges, and I was worried. Given the rapid rise in infection in our area, gathering them in a building was starting to feel like a risk we should no longer be taking. Yes - I'll miss us meeting together. Yes I'll miss sharing in communion. Yes, I'll find Zoom and YouTube poor substitutes for 'real' meetings, and yes I am worried for all the people who live in my parish. However, this may be the way to ensure that we are all around to meet again in a few weeks' time, when hopefully the risks will have reduced, and better measures are in place to detect and deal with infections.


Tony said...

A well balanced and sensible article.

Tony said...

A well balanced and sensible article.