OUR national institutions have hardly covered themselves in glory over the last two years. The Government’s response to the pandemic has been irrational, ill-informed, panic-driven, totalitarian and above all cruel.
It ignored well-researched pandemic preparedness strategies of both the World Health Organisation and the UK. In this it was aided and abetted by the opposition parties, public health gurus, the ‘modellers’, the teaching unions, the police, the British Medical Association and many others who were all urging the Government to go further, harder and faster with regards to lockdown, and all the associated mandates of mask-wearing and vaccination.
This has been especially true in the devolved regions of the UK and has resulted in immeasurable damage to the economy, the NHS, education and mental health, and has resulted in tragedy and misery for millions.
It will take years to recover, and I doubt the NHS ever will do so, given the waiting list figures just released. We were told these draconian, life-destroying rules and regulations were for our own good to protect us from a highly dangerous disease that, er, 99.8 per cent of us would survive, and which targeted specifically the very elderly and frail, as happens in any bad flu year
However, there is one institution which I believe had a role to play, but which completely failed to rise to the challenge, and that is the Church, or rather the churches in their various identities.
Of course the primary role of the Church is to preach and teach the Gospel of Christ, and I mean the true biblical gospel, not the sentimental pap so often proffered today with the aim of avoiding ‘offence’ (and which is rapidly emptying the pews).
The response of any individual to the Gospel must, initially, be personal. But if genuine, it should result in changes in personal behaviour, and also in political behaviour. By this I do not mean party political, although it may do for some, but rather political in the sense of social care and justice.
Both the Old and New Testaments are full of injunctions for believers to care for the poor, the downtrodden and the needy, to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked and to visit the prisoners.
Justice is central and the OT prophets cried out when it was denied. Christ challenged the religious leaders of his age who fulfilled every religious obligation, but somehow forgot justice and the love of God.
My point is that the Church has a role in society to serve and support the needy, but also to call out evil and wrongdoing, especially if it is perpetrated by the authorities. Obviously I am not suggesting that it is the only body in society with the responsibility for this.
Over the last two years, the Government has inflicted restrictions on normal life which would have seemed unimaginable in previous years.
But I think the cruellest treatment has been meted out to our children, who were locked in their homes, denied normal relationships with their friends, denied proper education, and forced to wear useless face masks. They were also witnesses to, and victims of, increasing levels of domestic violence.
But the main outrage was they were required to be jabbed with an experimental gene therapy despite the fact that the virus posed no significant risk to them, and there was no evidence that they were super-spreaders.
In the Gospel, Christ stated that anyone who would harm a child, it would be better for him that a heavy weight be slung round his neck and he be drowned in the deep, deep sea (my paraphrase).
So what was the response of the churches to this? Outrage? Condemnation? Demands for change? No. Sadly, they just rolled over and fully complied with the government dictates almost without protest.
They closed the church buildings, cancelled services, communion, weddings, baptisms and restricted funerals. Youth work was cancelled, as were mother and baby groups, and groups for the elderly. Face-to-face pastoral care ceased and the infernal Zoom took over. The main valedictory given to all was ‘stay safe’.
I know that many individual Christians and churches will have done their best to support their neighbours and communities to the extent the regulations allowed, but where was the challenge to what was clearly deeply unjust?
Part of the reason for the deafening silence of the churches was the success of the despicable ‘Project Fear’ led by the government nudge group. Many ordinary folk were simply terrified by the propaganda.
But this is not a good excuse. The scriptures are full of injunctions for believers to ‘fear not’, but most seemed as fearful as anyone. If the early Church had taken as its motto ‘stay safe’, then the Church would never have got off the ground.
Throughout history, Christian men and women of courage have gone out and changed the world with little thought to their own safety. One of my own spiritual heroines is Gladys Aylward, the small woman (she was about five foot tall).
In 1932, with only basic education but a strong sense that God was calling her to China, she took a perilous journey across Siberia, finally arriving in Yangcheng, Shanxi Province, where she joined an elderly missionary and founded the Inn of the Eight Happinesses.
Her most famous exploit in 1938 was leading more than 100 orphans across the mountains to escape from the invading Japanese. But she also had many other significant achievements in her life in a communist culture that was deeply hostile to religion. What would she have made of the injunction to ‘stay safe’?
Another factor has been the decision of Christians to follow St Paul’s injunction to ‘submit to the ruling authorities’. This pious attitude is fine if the authorities are making laws which are legitimate, and which benefit society. However, if the laws are harmful and destructive then we are under no obligation to obey them.
The early Christians frequently broke the laws forbidding them to preach. Indeed, St Paul was on a mission to arrest and imprison them when the had his Damascus Road conversion.
The Church has frequently moved forward through dissent. In 1662 more than 2,000 Anglican clergy left or were evicted from their parishes, many to destitution, as a result of the imposition of the Act of Uniformity. Movements such as Methodism or the Baptists all started in dissent. So Christians have a history of challenging restrictive laws.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian in the 1930s, wrote extensively on the role of Christianity in the secular world. He was an outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and became involved in the underground movement. He had no desire to submit to Nazism, and paid the price with his life.
He taught that oppressive laws should always be opposed. Christ summed it up with his statement: ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.’
It will, no doubt, be argued that the science around Covid was so complicated and confused that the ordinary man in the street could not be expected to know the truth, and that is correct to some extent.
But images of desperate families trying to communicate through the windows of care homes with their elderly confused relatives does not require an explanation.
Something was clearly wrong. As was people unable to visit dying partners in hospital. Groups of kids in our poorer estates roaming the streets because the schools were closed, who were then picked up by gangs and county lines drug runners. It does not require a degree in statistics to know that closing schools would result in serious problems.
Then there is the idea that we need to be kind to others so as not put them at risk. Now, there is nothing wrong with kindness, but is it kind to reinforce a lie?
For example, the lie that face masks have any significant role in preventing or reducing the spread of a highly transmissible respiratory virus. Today at the supermarket at least 70 per cent of people were still wearing them.
Or that a ‘vaccine passport’ will limit spread (when clearly the vaccines are not very good, if they work at all). Or that the unvaccinated are a serious danger to us all – for which there is no evidence. Or that most vaccine side-effects are minor.
Solzhenitsyn told us that we should not ‘live by lies’. Christians should take this seriously as governments throughout the world become increasingly totalitarian.
This inevitably leads us to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. It seems unfair to single him out, but then he is probably the best-known face of the Church in the UK.
His dismal Easter Sunday sermon in 2020 from his kitchen could, perhaps, be understood given at that stage we were still flying blind with regard to Covid. But he set the tone, and others followed.
However, his recent comment that ‘Jesus would get the vaccine’ and that ‘being vaccinated is a moral issue’ is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard from a senior clergyman (and there have been many).
This was nothing more than coercive moralising. No doubt at The Last Supper Jesus would have mandated face masks, have limited the gathering to no more than six, and rather than washing the disciples’ feet, he would have rubbed their hands in alcohol. And, of course, he would never have touched or gone near those dreadful lepers for fear of infection.
I would have preferred the archbishop to have condemned the immorality of care home workers losing their jobs because they refused vaccination.
Severe Covid is a nasty illness, but the evidence is steadily emerging that lockdown has had virtually no appreciable effect on death rates.
I know that there are Christians and Church leaders who have spoken out against the regulations, and I number myself among them. But we were too few, and our voices were drowned out by the mainstream media, who were virtually all singing from a different hymn sheet. I would like to believe that there were Christians on both sides of the debate, but sadly there was no meaningful debate in the churches.
I recently came across a quotation by the American business magnate and investor Warren Buffett to the effect that it is not until the tide ebbs that you see who has been swimming naked.
As the Covid tide ebbs, I think that the nakedness of many churches will become obvious as those who used to attend do not return after two years of Zoom services and little else. Perhaps this pruning will be a good thing in the end. But to recover, the churches need to find a much more authentic, prophetic voice in these secular days.