‘Why do our church leaders worship at the altar of health and safety?’ ran the title of a recent article by a Sunday Times columnist, above a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury at a homemade altar in his kitchen. That image seems to epitomise the response of church leaders in Britain to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In contrast to other countries — in Italy more priests than doctors have died, through resolutely visiting the sick in hospital — here, senior churchmen have so effectively led the flight to safety they have disappeared almost entirely from public view, leaving commentators in the national press asking, ‘Where is spiritual leadership at a time of crisis?’
The reluctance of denominational leaders to press for churches to reopen as a priority gives the message loud and clear: ‘almost anything, even getting a haircut, is more important than public worship… It’s not worth the risk.’ So, at the very time when so many have been forced to confront the frailty of mortal life, the message of the eternal — hope and salvation — has been entirely eclipsed by that of the ephemeral — health and safety.
To the claim that these are ‘unprecedented’ times, C. S. Lewis’s 1948 essay ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ gives some perspective: ‘do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.’ In answer to the question of how we are to live with a grave new threat — the atomic bomb, but equally a pandemic — he answers, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer… of railway accidents… of motor accidents… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
We need to ‘pull ourselves together’, he says. If such calamity comes, let it find us ‘doing sensible and human things…not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs’ — or viruses. Fear grips us when our horizons drift from the eternal to the merely ephemeral, a perennial danger for the church, and an acute one today when leaders may be tempted to court the praise of mainstream and social media through conforming to the prevailing ‘public mood’.
But ours is the gospel of eternal hope: ‘For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). Hebrews 11 demonstrates graphically the way of real Christian faith, in lives rooted in solid hope: seeing the invisible and living for the eternal. The calling of the church — especially in dark and difficult days — is above all to ‘hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering’ (Heb. 10:23). This is the message our society needs to witness, adorned in the church, and heard from its leaders.
Essential eternal perspective
That is not to say that Christians should not care about present physical threats. Indeed, it is this
eternal perspective that liberates the church to love truly, and fearlessly. As C. S. Lewis points out, ‘those who want heaven most have served earth best’. Thus the command to love neighbours has always been understood by Christians in time of plague to mean that their own wellbeing be sacrificed for others; ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13)
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Christianity spread rapidly though the Roman Empire because times of plague showed the world such Christian love and care the church was noticed and heeded. In the 4th century the emperor Julian talked of the ‘Galileans’ who, heedless of danger, showed such care for all (not just their own) that death rates in cities with Christian communities were far lower than elsewhere.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther famously refused to leave Wittenberg as ordered when it was hit by bubonic plague. Despite a fatality rate sometimes as high as 90 percent (Covid by contrast apparently kills fewer than 1% of those infected, with a recent survey of 23 serological studies suggesting a median of 0.25%1) Luther and his pregnant wife stayed to minister to sick and frightened people. His 1527 tract Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague articulates with care, clarity, and courage a biblical response to a time of epidemic.
Caring, not cowering
First, Christians are called to trust God by caring, not cowering; Christian leaders all the more so: ‘those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.’ It is the ‘bitter, knavish devil’ who ‘not only tries to slay and kill but takes delight in making us deathly afraid’ so that ‘under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety’ we ‘forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbour in his troubles’.
Far better to die, serving others, than to run away, thinking only of self-protection. What an important word today, when polls suggest Britain is the most fearful of any nation about this virus, many Christians included. We are called to care — to love, to the very end, and to leave the rest to God.
Careful, not cavalier
But that doesn’t mean we are to self-harm, far less be careless of others. ‘This is not trusting God, but tempting him’ says Luther. No. ‘I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it…so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others’ — the equivalent of hand washing and sensible distancing.
But, he adds, ‘if my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely’. Christians are to be those who carefully self-sacrifice not to protect themselves, but others. We take care in order that we might care, not cower.
Key workers are doing that of course, in order to care for people’s physical wellbeing, and we want to do that too. But, as Christians, we care for something more important than physical wellbeing, indeed, something infinitely more important: eternal wellbeing.
Confessing, not cowardice
Historically, believers in times of plague risked a great deal to keep meeting as the church. That wasn’t recklessness, simply that they measured their lives not by earthly lifespan, but by eternity, and they knew the latter was infinitely more important. They knew they needed the Lord, and one another, and that others needed their witness.
National church leaders today quickly acquiesced in churches being classified like nightclubs and theatres, for total closure (some going much further than government restrictions). At a time of fear, with many who have not been near church in years (or ever) seeking help, needing hope, the church has appeared absent to the public: hidden behind bolted doors with leaders merely repeating the slogans of ‘keep safe!’ and ‘remember to wash your hands!’.
But the confessing church must be seen and heard. Technology still allows us to gather in meaningful ways, and by all means possible the church must be open to the world, not closed to it — leaders proclaiming the true, eternal gospel so it is clearly understood. We shall be living through dark days. The irony is that the coronavirus will kill a tiny percentage of people; the collateral stress, social isolation, financial ruin, untreated disease, and mental illness will damage and kill vastly more. Who knows how our society will emerge out of all this?
One thing is certain: a gospel of ‘health and safety’ will not suffice. It may win plaudits from society, but it will not win souls to salvation. Our task, however unwelcome, is to bear witness to the eternal gospel so that the public, as Luther put it, may ‘learn through God’s word how to live and how to die’. This is the only true hope and the only true salvation. This is the church’s message, and its leaders must ensure it is heard.
William Philip is Senior Minister at The Tron, Glasgow.