by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project
Lockdown 3: how’s it going for you? I’m finding it far worse this time around.
Living with uncertainty is never easy, and it’s particularly difficult when things appear to be going backwards rather than forwards. Where I am, church buildings reopened: then closed again. Raised hopes were dashed. When the pandemic started, there was an institutional as well as a personal tendency to look on the bright side: in the Church of England, to focus on the numbers clicking on our online services and the inclusion of those for whom physical church is a step too far in some way. Now, the optimists are focused on the vaccination programme, and enthusing about using some cathedrals to deliver this.
Personally, I’m poised between optimism and pessimism (which I’d call realism) here. I accompanied an elderly neighbour for her jab. The leaflet given out says “two doses will reduce your chance of becoming seriously ill” and tells you that the date for the second dose will be written on the card stapled to the leaflet. Of course, it isn’t, because all that changed after these leaflets had gone to press, and so she doesn’t know when she will be given the second dose. The leaflet isn’t the most encouraging of documents, as it also says “We do not yet know whether [the vaccine] will stop you from catching and passing on the virus.” But at least that’s honest.
In the Church of England, we are also living with uncertainty about two issues: abuse, and inclusion in terms of sexuality and gender. And I’m not sure that we have honesty in either area. Our pandemic lockdown is difficult because it has no end date, no clarity as to its exit strategy. This vagueness can be excused, because we don’t understand the situation we’re in, but it’s not easy to live with it. But what about the Church of England responses to the IICSA report and the publication of Living in Love and Faith. Do we have an exit strategy?
In the case of IICSA, since the October publication we’ve had plenty of expressions of shame and of frustration. The 19 January House of Bishops claims “progress towards independent oversight for Safeguarding” but doesn’t share with all the rest of us – who aren’t bishops – what that progress is. Like outbreaks of the virus, pockets of abuse keep appearing. It’s clear that managing these pockets locally, at diocesan level, didn’t work. A church version of ‘track and trace’ can follow offenders’ careers from diocese to diocese, showing the connections between outbreaks of abuse. We still wait for the ‘lessons learned’ review into the actions of Jonathan Fletcher being carried out by the independent Christian charity thirtyone:eight, the most recent date revised as ‘not before January 2021’. For those who have survived abuse, there is clearly frustration at the lack of progress.
LLF, to my mind, invites a parallel between our discussions of sexuality and gender, and our attempts to make sense of the uncertainty we feel due to Covid-19. While our government exhorts us to “Follow the science” on the virus, scientists don’t agree on what that may be; partly because it’s all too soon to know, but also because ‘science’ isn’t one huge entity and they come from different disciplines within it. The over-simplification of “Follow the science” feels rather like “The Bible says”. Neither leads to agreement.
While LLF has a timeline, an exit strategy, it is increasingly unlikely to work. 2021 was supposed to be when we were ‘learning together’. Some dioceses were out of the starting gate immediately, with presentations from bishops at diocesan synods. As I noted in something I wrote for Modern Church, the LLF book uses the past tense for the pandemic, as they thought that everything would be sorted on the Covid-19 front before publication. At publication, more realism emerged; Bishop Paul Butler said to his diocesan synod that “We really hope that these LLF groups will be able to be done face to face and realistically this is more likely to be possible post Easter.”
But is even that realistic? The website for LLF anticipates midweek small groups, a Lent series, or away days; engagement with the resources by PCCs, deanery and diocesan synods and clergy conferences. How is any of that supposed to happen, if we won’t all be vaccinated until Easter, or November, depending on which press release you read; even assuming that vaccination is enough to allow groups to meet? With events still being cancelled – last week, Glastonbury, scheduled for late June – or rescheduled – the new Bond movie postponed again, from April to October – is the timeline realistic?
However, as Bishop Paul also noted, “We are asked to feedback our discernment nationally by November next year.” The LLF page states that “Engagement will need to be during 2021 so that processes of discernment and decision-making can take place in 2022.”
So, rather than delaying discussion of the resources yet again, isn’t it time for some online options to be offered? They would first need to be trialled to make sure that they are safe – not in Covid terms, but in safeguarding terms – for all participants. I’m not convinced that Zoom is the best way to have these conversations, not least because anyone can record a meeting, even by pointing a camera at the screen.
The lack of an exit strategy for lockdown is depressing, but understandable. The lack of an exit strategy, of a clear timeline and goals, for responding to IICSA is depressing, and there seems no reason for it. As for LLF, the planned timeline simply feels impossible as things stand. Are the episcopal Recovery Group (covering Covid-19) or the Next Steps Group (covering LLF) facing up to any of this? Some honesty here would go a long way in managing our uncertainty.