The Church in a time of pestilence

Where did the 'lockdown' come from?

The Church of England has come across the path that I have taken during the Covid 19 outbreak precisely twice. Once when I saw an empty and rocky beach being blessed by an Anglican priest, photographed and published in a broadsheet newspaper; and, once when Galya and I visited Chester Cathedral when that massive hulk of red stone was opened back up again in July. (At the door we were press-ganged into signing up for the government’s track and trace scheme. Purely symbolic, as far as I could see, because there were only a couple of other visitors, about 50 meters distant from us in the nave. We refused to do so, on the principle that government agents should not be standing at the door of a church. Typically, we were let in anyway.) So much for the presence of the Church of England during a national catastrophe. I know that they will say that they have to tread lightly, because they do not want to alienate the general populace, or to annoy the State / government. But that is no excuse.

If you look for guidance about what to do about Covid 19 on the Church of England website, you get chapter and verse about the government’s view of what to do. These guidelines were created by scientists. Effectively, technology and scientific attitudes have taken the place of religion; technology has taken the place of our relationship to God even inside Christ’s church itself.

I have no interest in arguing about whether this is a good or bad thing. I consider myself a scientist, and also a Christian. What I am interested in is, that scientific advisors have been advising the government about the outbreak, while the Church has not. It might have spoken out in some way contrary to science, and if it had contrary ideas, then it was its duty to have spoken out. But it has refused to do so.

The problem is, that the Church played not the remotest part in any of the decision making by the State. During the silence of the Church, the nation was needlessly shut down. Furthermore, churches were also needlessly shut down.

Why is, or was, the lockdown needless? Why do I think this? Firstly it is because the lockdown has evidently not worked; and, from the first, surely the more sceptical amongst us understood completely that it was not going to work. Proof that it has not worked: that it is still here and that it is coming back in the Winter with redoubled strength. And for this failed measure, the price is something like the worst economic slump of all time.

But, scientists advised the lockdown so that virus transmission would be reduced. They advised in this way because they wanted to ensure that there would be fewer deaths. That is to say, scientists advised the State that there would be less death if the country were more or less shut down, and, the State listened and shut the country down. In concert, that is, the State and its scientific advisors made a calculation about the value of human life and determined to protect it at any cost.

But where, inside the professional body of engineers, technicians, and scientists, is there any competency to decide about the relative cost of death? That is, in order to stop most economic activity in Britain, they had first to decide how valuable a human life is, and then, on the balance of risks, decide whether that amount of living people were more valuable than the British economic and cultural, and religious life.

Famously, the cost of a human body when broken down into its elements of carbon, potassium, hydrogen, and the like, is about £10. A few pints of water, some coal, and a spinkling of obscure elements from the periodic table. A physicist might say that a human being can generate a few thousand kilowatt hours of energy in a lifetime, as a surplus. But these are about as good as it gets with technology and virology, and the other sciences. They cannot put a value on a human life because, inherently, a human life has no value as an objective thing. A scientist advising, let’s say, Boris Johnson, can put any value on life or a dead body that he wants to: either nothing, or everything. And, it is the latter which we have ended up with. A single human fatality from Covid 19 is today considered something which should have been prevented: because a human life has an economic value heading toward infinity. That is, a scientist is not inherently qualified to judge what to do about people dying or living because the value of a human life in a political judgement is not something we can calculate; the value is limitless. And so we had lockdown, and dithering among people in high office, and finally, lifting of the lockdown.

And ultimately, it is still here, as if we should not have bothered to have the lockdown at all. (For instance, the state of New York in March 2020 was already following a strict lockdown procedure, as a whole population. Masks were mandatory, business closed, etc.,. As of August 4th, 2020, the state now ranks second in a table of states, ranking for the highest rates of infection in the US. Showing that the lockdown only put off for a short time the inevitable. Estimates of the people who have already had and survived the virus are not being made; but several months ago it was estimated that, for example, in France, 20% of people have already had the virus. When 70% is reached, then herd immunity rules will apply; again, the lockdown was ill-advised and basically pointless).

But the Church does know the value of life and death. Furthermore, even if nobody wants to hear it, it is the exact point of the Church’s existence that it speaks the truth about this matter. And, as before, it has absolutely failed to do this. Yes, people might not bother to listen, or not want to hear it, but the Church’s duty is to tell it from the Christian perspective.

This is because, the Church claims not just to have a valuable opinion on this matter, which might be listened to: rather, the Church claims to know the absolute truth. For instance, Christians are supposed to know that the only reason humans exist is so that they will find their way back to God; and, that humans are inherently loaded with sin and disease at all times; and that we will find only endless death if we do not turn to God; but everlasting life if we do so. As far as Christians have any view on life, this is their view. And the Church therefore has something to offer when people wonder about what to do during an epidemic.

When, on a radio station, or in a letter to an MP, some random fearful member of the public expresses his fear of dying with tubes stuck down his throat, in a hospital, alone, the scientists must give every available bit of their attention to this fearful person. Because, there is no way for science or technology to deny that fear is very bad, and that as a result of people’s fear, and to prevent it, we must all ‘shield’ or hide ourselves away.

Even the economists, masters of our country in normal times, have not known what to do about Covid 19. Because there was a threat of older people dying from the symptoms of the virus, economists have had to simply observe while the economy and the financial world (usually in complete command of England) collapsed.

And above all, for the sake of saving a single life, every person who will be around into future times is going to have to pay the government’s financial debts which were incurred during this time. What? To save a handful of those who were mostly elderly and frail. Did their lives have that kind of infinite value? In the view of the Church, they surely did not have this value.

What does the Church say? We know what the scientifico-governmental technocrats say, because it is in every newspaper, on rolling news broadcasts on TV, internet and radio. They say: stay indoors, and do nothing. That is what they were saying, as far as I can see. They make predictions about an antidote or an injection; and they make prophecies about the return of the virus; and, in order to save a life here or there, they advise complete shut down of all contact between people, as much as possible.

Techno-scientism is the ‘religion’ of hate and disgust with human contact, when it becomes, like this, a religion. (During a radio broadcast by the BBC the other day, a multi-award winning British intellectual and novelist (Zadie Smith) was almost dumbstruck with the expression of her disgust with what she saw in London; the way, she said, they just got on with their lives; the way they mixed together. She ended up calling the people in London ‘disgusting’. Because she is an honoured English novelist, I can’t help thinking that a majority of intelligent people agree with her, that people in England are ‘disgusting’, the way they just ‘carry on with their lives’. Incidentally, it is Zadie Smith who was only the other day comparing the excellent hygenic behaviour of New Yorkers in March 2020, when compared to Londoners of that time (see remarks on New York, above)).

What should the Church have said, claiming as it does, that it has the absolute truth about life and death? In practical matters, I believe it is mundane and common-sensical. They should have said that Christians should go about their normal business, but ‘shield’ / hide if they are too afraid of ill-health. They should individually, and without government interference, work out their own salvation, and risk their lives on their own initiative. This is because we must make a living, and we must attend our church, and we must see our family. That the government succeeded in prohibiting the taking of communion in Christian churches, and succeeded in prohibiting the visiting of relatives in hospital, frail and old people who were forced to die alone, that men and women are now looking at mass unemployment, and that children (more or less invulnerable to the disease) have been confined to their homes – these are things which the Church should not have tolerated in silence.

The Church should have spoken out about this because there are parts of the absolute truth, revealed in the Gospels and our tradition, which contradict the fearfulness and the placing of infinite value on every human life lived merely in time. Followers of Christ hold that self-love is bad; over-attachment to life is bad; that putting pointless and unreasonable constraint on others with the threat of punishment is bad; and above all, that discounting the influence of God in all things is bad. For a Christian, God made and makes the earth and our life on it; so why is the Covid 19 outbreak not being interpreted in the light of God’s intention for us? By the Church!?

At the same time, the Church should pray to God for a cure, and for the good work of scientists in the field of virus control and pharmaceuticals, work which would be useful to some people. And also the Church must pray for the departed and the sick.

Speaking as a layman, I think that the following loose principles of our theology apply here.

1. That death is not the end, and therefore, unless we have ignored God for our entire lives, and adamantly so at the end, then we have nothing to fear beyond the grave.

2. That we have always been in a state of dying, because fundamentally, we were born and die in a state of sin.

3. That being a Christian means preparing for death, and seeking reconciliation with God, which was offered to us with the death of his Son.

4. That people are inherently valueless and (as the Covid 19 outbreak has revealed) inherently dangerous and rather disgusting. But that love for one another overcomes this.

5. And that, unless we are simply animals, then the ultimate end of this love for one another derives from, and is a distant echo of our predisposition to the love of God.

On Christianity today

I have been around a bit in the world. I know that people don’t want to hear about Christianity in general; and they think that science has poured righteous scorn and mockery all over it. I know that. However, what I also know is that it was the duty of your elders, your parents and your society, to lend to your education a gentle push in the direction of Christ and his teaching, and the true teaching of the Church, so that, one day, when you were ready, you could make your conversion to God with more than the suspicion that He is there. Which He is.

But previous generations in England have let us down, by and large, and they were proud atheists and ‘humanists’, and ‘liberals’. And this is why it may be the case that you, dear reader, do not want to contemplate that God might not be watching you and waiting for repentance.

In times of pestilence

In times of pestilence, it was traditional for the Church to step forward to try to gather to itself more faith from the lump of people who are usually unconcerned with their eternal happiness or damnation. The Church used to remind people that God cares nothing at all for those who reject him, and that their lives are just chaff. Back then, in the mists of time, the Church could tell things as they saw them. That is: that a human life is just nothing in the vast pageant of time, and it receives meaning and value only when the soul turns toward the Way. Technology cannot give meaning to a life, or tell you how to live. But the essential purpose of Christ’s Church is to do exactly that.

For us, who live on the supposition that God rules the earth, and that He foresees everything that goes on here, we can or should start to consider whether the Covid 19 event was not meant to elicit from us a display of our fear, or a display of our gratitude for nurses and doctors (deserved gratitude, I insist), but whether this virus was not meant, rather, to gradually put us in mind again that we are not masters of this world, but that we owe our existence now and after death to the creator; and that the virus is the call of a jealous God who wants people to pay attention, and to engage in communion with Him.

Instead, in England, they shut the churches and said nothing.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.