by the Ven Malcolm Chamberlain, Archdeacon of Sheffield & Rotherham and Member of General Synod
On Monday 4th May, six weeks into the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, The Guardian newspaper published an article by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett under the heading ‘Why coronavirus might just create a more equal society in Britain.’ In it they wrote about how the present crisis “has given rise to more neighbourliness, sociability and a desire to take care of each other.”
It would be a fascinating study, well beyond the scope of this blog post, to put that statement to the test. Perhaps even more fascinating to chart a journey from how we were as a nation to what we may have become. At a superficial level, I can’t be the only one to have noticed how the initial selfish stockpiling of loo-rolls and pasta soon gave way to wonderful acts of human kindness. Indeed, in the midst of much tragic loss and disturbing uncertainty, time and time again we’ve been reminded of the human capacity for great generosity.
I was particularly moved, for example, when, right at the beginning of the lockdown, the carers at Bridgedale House care home, not far from where I live in Sheffield, made the sacrificial decision to isolate with the residents in order to minimise the risk of transmitting the disease to those vulnerable people. For some this meant leaving behind partners and young children for several weeks, at a time when their lives were being affected too.
We’ve heard stories of people spending their time and money to shop for and deliver groceries to those unable to leave their homes; of generous donations to foodbanks at a time of unprecedented demand; of holiday cottage owners housing NHS and other frontline workers free of charge; of café and restaurant owners providing food and refreshments for essential workers at heavily discounted prices or even for free; and, of course, there was Captain Tom’s incredible 100th birthday walk. As a fan of David Bowie, I still wish the army had given him an honorary promotion, so we could have sung about ‘Major Tom’!
And I haven’t even mentioned the countless small, but no less significant, acts of generosity carried out by ordinary people day after day after day. If one positive effect of the Coronavirus pandemic is the much-needed reminder of the power of human generosity in overcoming adversity, we simply cannot go back to the self-obsessed ‘look after number one’ culture we have previously inhabited.
We are not lone islands, even if economic policy has at times seduced us to such self-centredness. We are co-members of the human race, lovingly created by the same God who calls us into relationship with our Creator and with one another. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the awful consequences of poverty, institutional racism and injustice, as evidence suggests that the virus has a more devastating impact on the poor and on BAME communities. More positively, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the benefits of cleaner air, with enforced travel restrictions reducing global carbon emissions by some 17%. We cannot go back.
But let’s be honest. We can go back and, sadly, we probably will.
When we eventually return to a new normality free from restrictions, it will be all too easy for us to forget that feeling of sharing in a common crisis, and return again to simply looking after number one. I’m writing this in the week that non-essential shops were allowed to open again, and was gobsmacked (not in a good way) by images of one such store where eager shoppers were literally wrestling with each other to get in the door as it opened – no thoughts of social distancing or, it seems, of anyone else’s needs. Faced with such images, it can seem as though nothing has really changed.
So how can we live differently? How might we emerge from the lockdown as more generous and caring people? And how might such generosity demonstrate our oneness both as members of the human race and, for those of us who might call ourselves ‘Christian’, as followers of Jesus Christ?
There may be a clue in the letters of the New Testament. As the Church began to spread across Asia Minor, St Paul regarded generously giving to meet the needs of others as a key sign of commitment to Christ and a powerful demonstration of unity. Tom Wright comments that, having realised just how poor the Jerusalem Church had become, Paul started to imagine “what an impact it would have if the churches of which Jerusalem had been so suspicious … were to band together and send real and lasting financial help.”
And so, Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthian church by explaining how they were to go about collecting gifts for their fellow believers in Jerusalem. And it wasn’t only the wealthy that gave generously. In chapter 8 of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul points to the example of the Macedonian Christians, who, by the grace of God, had been giving voluntarily out of their relative poverty, begging earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry. I love that! These materially poor followers of Jesus were literally begging for the chance to enjoy the privilege of giving!
As we potentially begin to slip back into old habits and power structures that advantage some over others, I wonder, do you, do I, regard generous giving as ‘a privilege’? Might we have more to learn from God about this essential mark of Christian discipleship. Whatever our financial means, however much spare time we have, whatever our gifts and abilities, might we have room to more fully reflect the generosity and abundance of the God who created us? Or what about our church or our diocese or our other networks – can we see ways of working together to better embody the kind of generosity that reflects our shared humanity?
If the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to live more generously and pursue the common good in the face of adversity, surely we cannot go back.
 Wright, Tom, Paul A Biography, SPCK: London, 2018, p257
Thank you for this Malcolm, well said.
Captain Tom became an honorary Colonel. Didn’t you know?
Glad you mentioned that ‘we probably will’, which makes the subject realistic. We ourselves are thankful to the generosity of a neighbour (a European actually) who has been buying perishable essentials for us when shopping for his largish family.
On the downside, though, two points stand out. One, the incredible foolishness of large crowds who both shopped like there was no tomorrow as soon as they could, demonstrating a crazy selfishness beyond belief while this dangerous virus remains about, and rush tothe coast as soon as the sun shines, to barbecue, fight, and interact. Two, the attitude of our government: selfserving, uncaring, unprepared for no good reason (they had due warning), entitled, interested only in the financial costs/profits/Brexit. They are very ready to go back… I realise this may not be publishable but the point is not a political one – it is about attitude, me-centeredness, and that at all levels is hard to change.
There was a period between about mid March and mid May when the UK was adopting a form of war socialism. This was because it was, at long last, appreciated that it is only the state which has the resources and the economies of scale to confront a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19. That the state dropped the ball in certain critical ways was not only a function of its attenuation over the last two generations, but also of the cult of managerialism which contaminated much public service after the 1980s (and especially after 1997) as well as maladroit decision making by the ‘experts’. It is profoundly ironic that a government which has been basted for maligning experts has failed in large measure by being so in thrall to them (and also by using the experts as a shield against any adverse reputational backwash). The Sage minutes bear striking witness to well-meaning yet indecisive decision making by experts using false or incomplete data sets and impaired predicates. Curiously, most of the media have paid scant attention to the minutes relative to the brouhaha associated with forcing their publication: as Sir Lawrence Freedman has indicated recently in a withering comment on the competence of the British media, the best way of burying information in the UK is to publish it.
So for about six or eight weeks there was a complete bouleversement in public policy: all of the austerian trash associated with George Osborne, Nick Macpherson and Mervyn King (arguably the three main culprits of the UK’s failed response), was thrown over and anything seemed possible. Here, finally, was an opportunity for a fundamental reconfiguration of the UK’s political economy.
Here, too, was a chance for the Church to provide a coherent and comprehensive vision for that new political economy, much as William Temple did during the last war.
And where was the Church during that critical window or opportunity?
It was nowhere. There was no coherent vision; scarcely any senior clergy (with the brief exception of the bishop of Durham) contributed anything of any value to the debate. The failure was abject.
So now, once more, we find ourselves reverting to the dismal status quo ante in which an increased PSBR will probably be funded by those least able to bear the liability. If the Church has the temerity to critique that reversion to the status quo it ought first to take a good look in the mirror and ask itself why it was so incapable or, worse, unwilling to articulate any credible vision during that critical period.
Perhaps it might be the case that, as a major institutional investor – and one in league with some of the more baleful aspects of international political economy – it cannot articulate any radical vision without immediately exposing itself to charges of hypocrisy. In short that it is, arguably, complicit with the system. If that is the case, what, really, is the use of the Church?
Brief reply to ‘Froghole’ – your comments on the C of E very true: its tragedy is that as a ‘state church’ it dares not, or doesn’t want to, ‘rock the boat’ by defying the government/system by speaking out. This now cripples it in every area, and makes it a toothless animal whereas its Lord was not afraid to speak about social justice.
All we got from the Church was an exaggerated and unnecessary response to the closure of public facilities: an absolute closure of all churches scarcely essayed elsewhere in Europe (a misplaced form of ‘solidarity’, but revealing of a profound resentment in certain clerical quarters for the Church’s built patrimony), and then a petulant and unthinking response to the Cummings affair (bishops tweeting that they would ‘refuse to co-operate with the government’, as if the government would even care, or treat it as a promise rather than a threat).
That’s practically all they had to say. Showboating as a substitute for thought and deed.
What is the point in having 26 clerical legislators if not to make concrete proposals for social and economic reform? These could easily be drafted by the Legal Office in Church House in the form of bills to be presented in the upper house by one or more of the bishops or in the lower house by the second commissioner.
A golden opportunity has been missed.