Hinder us not from living

Taking precautions is one thing, refusing people the Sacraments on the grounds of risk another.

Though I would not challenge the conscience of anyone else on this point, I would say academically, that as a Church, I am deeply bothered by the sense that we are not acting as if we believe what we say in reacting to this epidemic by choosing to stop taking the Sacraments to people almost altogether.

This is because, whatever respect we have for earthly life – and not to respect earthly life as a gift of God is gnostic (i.e. necessarily incorrect) – we are supposed to regard the Divine Life as more fundamental.

This means that I would argue that we should be acting the other way up: that is, instead of saying “the risk to earthly life is the most fundamental thing, unless we can completely negate the risk, we should not take the Sacraments to people,” we should be saying “the risk to Divine Life is the most fundamental thing: we should take every precaution we can to preserve earthly life, but it is right to take whatever left-over risk is unavoidable in taking the Sacraments to people.”  If our Lord who died for us is not worth that risk, what on earth are we doing on a daily basis in ordinary situations?  If we do not believe that the Life that can’t be destroyed is received through these things, what is it that we do believe?

I would suggest that there is quite a strong analogy here with the Christian tradition of martyrdom.  It is who loses their life who saves it, who gives it up for Christ’s sake who finds it.  Many Christians over the centuries have met at much greater peril of their lives than we would be in (not that I am advocating gathering specifically, at least not in large groups – I personally would not see that aspect of things as essential).  As for the fact that whatever we do is a risk to others’ lives, that is true under any circumstances, not just these.  If worship means so little, we could be spending the time we normally spend worshipping helping the famine stricken, for instance.  We could save lives just as much that way, as by almost completely desisting from practicing in this type of crisis (yes, there are differences in the two situations, but are the similarities more important?).

I grew up in a secular culture that condemned martyrs for their inconsideration to their families in holding to their integrity.  St. Perpetua is supposed almost to have lost her child in prison due to the difficulties of feeding it, and her elderly father was publicly beaten and humiliated in court, while pleading with her to deny Christ and thereby spare her child*.  Yet I have no doubt that she was right to hold to her faith at their cost as well as her own, and it is reasonable if we trust God to assume that her doing so will ultimately serve both her child and her father more than her denying her faith would have done.  If I did not believe that, I could not have come so far in the vocation as a religious which I have sought to follow.

Moreover, I am bothered by the sense conveyed in the emphasis on risk to the wider community that Christian worship is merely a matter of personal salvation, personal indulgence.  Granted the element of selfishness is always something that I am vaguely aware of, and which I am perpetually trying to purify from my worship (or, if I was wiser, would be trying to let God purify), but that is beside the point, because it is a flaw, and not how things should be working.  We receive not just for our own sakes, but for those of others; we should ultimately become overflowing vessels of grace.  Just as catching coronavirus is not a risk only to oneself but to others, a person’s falling from the Divine Life will result in others being pulled down, by the lack of their witness and companionship.

I really do not want to suggest that any individual Christian would be wrong to accept not receiving the Sacraments during an epidemic, if they feel it isn’t necessary to sustain them, and I don’t want to suggest bad motivation in anyone’s case.  I know people are doing what they think right in a very difficult situation.

However, there is an unconscious inconsistency as far as I can see, in this action of making a priority of risk to earthly life, over and above the Divine Life.  The person to whom the priest takes the Sacraments, who then dies as a result of the risk of infection they took in so receiving, has still from a Christian point of view gained and not lost.  The risk of infection, moreover, comes under the rules of Double Effect**, if the Sacraments are regarded as having a real value as vessels of the Divine Life: the minister of the Sacraments in such cases is not morally responsible for any deaths that result due to doing something that is more than equally important for people.

It isn’t right to seek martyrdom, only to accept it, and I would emphasis that I do believe completely that it would be wrong to take careless risks with an infectious illness (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).  But in the end, we seem to have been placed in a position where we have a fundamental choice to make between risk to earthly life and risk to the Divine Life, and we have chosen the former, mostly without even seeming to recognise a case for the latter***.

I think it is unlikely that I’m the only one to be immensely troubled by the logical and spiritual implications of this.

Cherry Foster

 

*http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/ThSp_599z_SpDir/04_mart_vision/00a_start.htm

I do not know the weight of the historicity of this account, but for these purposes, it does not really matter: the archetypal understanding of martyrdom in the Tradition is more to the point, than what happened on any specific occasion (though I acknowledge that if it had never happened, there would be a lack of real witness to the value set).

**Double effect is when one and the self-same action results in a good consequence and in a bad consequence, which is foreseen but not intended.  For instance, when someone builds a railway, they build it in the full knowledge that there will be accidental deaths on it.  This does not make them morally responsible for these deaths.  Someone’s pushing an attacker away in the knowledge that they will probably fall over a cliff and be killed is a similar case.  For double effect to apply the two things should be roughly proportional (or, the good effect more important than the bad), they must be achieved in the same action (it is not possible to justify doing a bad thing to achieve a good one in this way), and the bad consequence should not be intended (i.e. the purpose intended should be achieved if the bad consequence does not come to pass).

***To come to different conclusions about what the priority of the Divine Life considered relative to the value we should put on human life would mean we do is not the same thing as taking earthly life as more fundamental – i.e. as the thing to which an appeal can’t rightly be rejected – which is what I am hearing in all the discussions I have had with other Christians on the subject.

Epidemic, the Sacraments, and the Resurrection

Where do our priorities as Christians coincide with those of the world in an epidemic, and where should they differ? 

Resurrection_(24) Photo credit Surgun source Wikamedia Commons no copyright
Christ rescuing Adam and Eve (representing all humanity) from Hell. Photo credit: Surgun; source: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of a serious epidemic, it might be appropriate that Communion should be received by an intincted Host being placed reverently in the recipients’ hand, at mutual arm’s length, through an only just sufficiently open window, with both recipient and minister wearing masks, and the recipient only removing theirs to consume the Body and Blood of Christ after the window has been carefully pushed shut.  Or whatever precautions best fit the disease in question.

However, that is very different from it not being possible to receive at all, other than because it is literally impossible.

In a time of contagious illness, we are in the middle of one of the more bizarre paradoxes of Christianity: that of our immense value for earthly life, which ultimately, nevertheless takes second place to the Divine Life in a case of head on conflict.  This creates a massive puzzle when it comes to the handling of an epidemic* of a sort to require serious precautions.

On the one hand, we should be taking every precaution to protect the sick and vulnerable, made in the image of God and designed, within God’s plan, for eternal glory.  Earthly life is made more precious, not less, by the life to come: partly because it is ultimately the resurrection of the body in which we believe, and partly because the created and redeemed human person is infinitely precious.  Earthly life is a gift of God too.  It is Gnosticism that makes earthly life evil and the spiritual good, not Christianity, in which this world is God’s good but fallen creation, which he is in the process of redeeming.

On the other hand, death is fundamentally unescapable.  We will stand before the judgement seat of our Redeemer, one way or another.  The Divine Life, that does not notice death, is normally received through prayer, worship and the Sacraments, and the transformation of being and action that sincere engagement with these things creates.  And the Divine Life is a more fundamental life than the temporary life of the earth.  Though it is impossible to say very much about the practical nature of these things (data deficient) salvation is something that grows in us through this life, as we become more truly restored in the image of God.

Therefore, care for earthly life should be extremely fundamental, but care for the Divine Life even more so.  The secular world may, according to its principles, treat Christian practice as if it was an emotional indulgence of the same sort as going down to the pub.  We cannot.  The normal means of the inbreaking of the Divine Life into human life is not something that can be completely yielded to pressure of any sort, even the threat of mortality, artificial or natural.  Indeed, it is in the face of mortality that we most need God, and it is in the face of death that the commission to reach out to the suffering world with the knowledge of God becomes most urgent.

I would suggest this creates a situation where we should mostly be trying to find ways of co-operating with epidemic precautions, legal and to a lesser extent advised, but should never give up on trying to find ways of working with them which make sure worship and the Sacraments are still accessible to people**.  And at the last, I think any restriction should be disobeyed, if accepting it means accepting a secular view of life and death, with its trivialisation of Christian worship.  However, I don’t think we should ever hold doing so lightly, or do this when there is any option which allows us to honour both commitments.  As far as I can see, much excellent work is currently being done in putting worship online.  But the weight our branch of the Church places on the Sacraments does not really allow us to stop there.  What is or isn’t being done about this, I am not at all clear, and I would like (again) to thank all the clergy for their efforts to keep on supporting people, but I admit to being rather uncomfortable with the way in which I’ve heard it talked about, without mention of the Christian understanding of life and death, or an apparent consciousness that this understanding might cause us to think differently from our culture about what we should do***.

I think, for instance, that I’d suggest the Church should be the last to stop gathering (whether that was the case this time, I have no idea: where I am it all happened so quickly).  Also, if the nature of gathering can be altered effectively, it would be logical to do so – gathering for services outdoors, for instance, at a careful distance, is something I have heard has been done in plague conditions in the past.  After which, I suppose, it is necessary to resort to non-public reception of some kind, such as cautious home Communion, with careful observation of the same precautions that would be used by visiting carers.

Indeed, though it would not be the sort of thing appropriately resorted to under any but the most extreme circumstances, I do remember hearing it said that the Easter Eucharist was distributed in a Russian labour camp of the Communist era, by concealing fragments of the Consecrated Bread in the boxes of cigarettes handed out to each prisoner.  That sort of thing raises the interesting question of which of the normal church rules of handling and reverence it is appropriate to suspend in any particular extreme circumstance.  But, as I would argue that any reverent reception of the Precious Blood is preferable to refusing to allow people to receive it at all, I similarly think any devout reception, even if the normal manner of reverence is impossible, is preferable to not allowing people to receive at all.  Having said, I do not think the issue a simple one.  Such a thing could certainly not be done without great caution, or indeed, without a reasonable amount of knowledge on the part of the recipients as to how to handle the Sacrament.

Ultimately, I think the point I am trying to make is that though our priorities rightly coincide with those of the secular world up to a point, it is necessary to refuse their priorities when it comes to the importance of supporting people in the Divine Life.  And following from that, it is worth in such circumstances talking about Resurrection, worth challenging the view that the best we can hope for is that science will ultimately defeat the illness (an expectation for which I have great gratitude, but which I do not think to be the end of the story).  Death is an enemy that has been far more utterly defeated than that, by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lenten call to repentance is not a call to despair but to hope.  It is a call to remember that we are ultimately created for a Life that no grief can touch or disease destroy.

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Cherry Foster

 

*I remain puzzled as to what causes the problem, given that coronavirus seems to have an incredibly low death rate as these things go, but I accept – despite initial scepticism – that there is a real problem now if people are ordering lockdown.  That isn’t a step most governments would undertake lightly.

**Possibility is different from what individuals choose to do.  It may be conscientious decision on the part of some Christians to stay away in time of sickness, or not to look to receive Communion in a time when it is difficult to gather or be in contact with others.  God works differently with everyone, and some people may be quite happily supported in their faith short term by other things.  But that is completely different from others saying to them “due to the risk we will not do this”.  That is not much different (perhaps slightly worse, by the logic I’m suggesting we should be using) from refusing to care for the sick on the grounds of the risk.

***Given what people are doing, this may well be because they are taking the modifiers for granted: as I didn’t grow up with a Christian world view, I don’t.  If what people say sounds purely secular, that is what I hear :-S

Thank-you

I am sure there is much more protest to come on my part regarding the decisions the Church has made over the coronavirus epidemic, and the reasoning behind them: it is a necessary part of this sort of thing that we should think about whether we have our priorities right, or whether we are giving way wrongfully to a secular understanding of life and death (or to some other distortion).

However, at this moment, I would like to express my immense gratitude to the clergy on the ground, who, officially forbidden to hold services, are putting so much effort into not allowing us to perish for want of any sort of spiritual support.

Thank-you.  Thank-you very much.

Cherry Foster

Valley of Shadow

Again, I should say that I do appreciate that the clergy are making what they honestly believe to be the best decision in difficult circumstances, in withdrawing the Precious Blood of Christ from the congregations.  What I say about this is not a criticism of anyone’s goodwill, but an attempt to present a fuller perspective on the issue than I think is being considered, and to help myself (and hopefully others) to cope emotionally and spiritually with what is happening.

 

Temptation’s bitter vale – strange place of hopelessness –

O Shepherd of the sheep, where art Thy staff and rod?

The nourishment Thou gavest for Life fades from us away,

We are fed on lifeless theory and not the Living God.

 

O Vine of Life! How can we not learn to loathe Thee,

When pierced through and through by Thee with such a bitter knife?

How not turn, despairing, from Thy faith unto the world

When Thy stewards treat Thee but as a risk to earthly life?

 

O Christ our God!  How didst Thou hold Thy faith

In the hour of Thine agony upon the dreadful Tree?

O remember Thou our weakness; come Thou swiftly to sustain us,

Ere we place our trust in that which is not Thee.

 

O, move the hearts which are now stone to us

To have pity on Thy Life as on the human birth.

Free Thou our hearts from this cage of stifling reason,

Raise Thou the eyes that see not beyond the earth.

 

O Lord, aid Thou the fire Thyself hast lit,

O see, it sinks and dies for want of nourishment!

And bear us in Thine arms, who perish from Thy loss;

Preserve in us the Life that Thou hast lent.

 

Cherry Foster

 

Edit 21st March 2020: This was originally published with the first verse reading as below, but I was unhappy with the quality, and hope I have managed to improve it slightly.  I am aware of other technical issues in this one: I suspect I may end up rewriting it eventually as more than one poem.

My heart goes out to all those who now find themselves completely without the Sacraments due to the prohibitions on holding services.  The secular world is probably acting conscientiously to its own values in forbidding it, but I do not think we are in obeying, unless we do so in the context of making adequate alternative provisions (I am very grateful for people’s efforts on that point).  Death is unavoidable.  If the Sacraments are the primary means by which we enter into the Divine Life that does not notice death, the last thing it makes sense to do is to expect people to face their earthly mortality without them.

 

Valley of temptation; grim place of hopelessness,

O Shepherd of Thy sheep, where art Thy staff and rod?

The nourishment of Life Thou gavest is fading fast away,

For our food is dead theology and not the Living God.

Whither has Thou gone?

On the withdrawal of the Precious Blood from the reception of the Sacrament

Welsh Manuscript Crucifixion, Wikimedia commons, no copyright
The Crucifixion of Jesus, from a Welsh manuscript. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Whither is my Beloved gone?  Where hast Thou hid Thyself?

With outstretched hands and broken heart I plead;

For where I seek Thy love I find but piercing thorns,

Why deny the fruit where Thou hast sown the seed?

 

O Thou who wast with a kiss betrayed, how canst Thou bear

To thus betray Thy people whom Thou hast kissed to life?

How canst Thou change Thy gifts to suffering?

And pierce our hearts as with a traitor’s knife?

 

O Thou who pourest out Thy Blood in priceless love,

How shall we keep Thy faith without Thy sign?

How can we live by half thy precious gift,

Or in prayer but half-engaged approach Thy shrine?

 

Why does thou change Thy outpoured love and joy

For stark mechanical rite of no responsive sense?

Why didst Thou give us such a precious thing?

To make it a destruction and offence?

 

O Precious Vine!  O Love beyond all loss,

May our sufferings witness to the value of Thy Gift.

Who forsaken died, and whom we know did rise,

And with whom we shall reign in endless bliss.

 

Cherry Foster

 

 

N.B.  To avoid any implication of theological error, I do believe Communion valid in one kind.  But when someone has died to give you a gift, as Christ died to give us His Precious Blood, the necessity or otherwise of that gift has no bearing on the value of it.

The car crash-coronavirus analogy again – and the reception of the Precious Blood

The withdrawal of the Precious Blood from Anglican congregations due to coronavirus seems to lack consistency when it comes to the way we handle different types of risks.

At time of writing, the death count among those positive for coronavirus in the UK is published as 21*.  And without a miracle, it is clear that the number of deaths is going to rise, though hopefully we will come out of this and find fewer people have actually died of it than of the seasonal flu.  (This doesn’t mean I’m not aware this particular epidemic presents some peculiar challenges not involved in the case of the flu).  Taking sensible precautions against infection has a role in helping the death count to stay low.

The hope that the numbers will be statistically low does not mean those deaths do not matter.  I am sorry for people’s loss, and I will be praying for those who have died of it and for all others who have died in the last few weeks (of whatever cause), that they may rest in peace and rise in glory.

However.  1,784 people died on the roads in 2018, and those deaths are not less important.

When driving a car, you don’t drink too much alcohol, you fasten your seatbelt, and you refrain from using a hand-held mobile phone.  At least, I hope people do and don’t.

Do people say: “is my journey absolutely necessary?” or “It is incredibly selfish for anyone to make a car journey because it might put others at risk.”

No.  We take sensible safety precautions and we don’t hesitate to make the most trivial of journeys.

But when it comes to the Precious Blood of Christ, who resigned His equality with God to be born Incarnate, to live, suffer horribly, and die, in order to give us that most precious and unbelievable gift and the life and love that is received through It, do we take sensible precautions – make perhaps a few careful changes to exactly what we are doing – and carry on receiving?

No.  We say: “it isn’t necessary for validity.”  “It’s selfish to ask to go on receiving because it might put others at risk.”  We treat Him as if receiving Him in the completeness of His gift was an emotional indulgence – was more of an emotional indulgence than a car journey for a Saturday afternoon trip to a tea-room.

How can we respond like that if we believe what we say?

Cherry Foster

 

 

N.B.  I would ask anyone responsible for the policy or for implementing it to appreciate that this is a cry of perplexity and anguish, and an appeal to rethink the importance of what is being denied – to Him, as well as to us – it is not an accusation of deliberate hypocrisy.  I come out as INFJ on Myers-Briggs: I genuinely tend to be both coldly technical and passionately emotional at the same time.

*Lest I spread alarm and despondency: this is as yet a tiny fraction (0.018) of those known to have it in the UK, and as they are testing the more serious cases (i.e. the people more likely to die), the number of people in the UK who have got it who have actually died is almost certainly comparatively tiny.  Not that deaths don’t matter.  Just that it is not a cause for panic.

O Pelican

For the sake of giving expression to the intensity of the grief involved in the withdrawal of Communion in Both Kinds, and for the sake of anyone else who is suffering.

By the way, I do also appreciate that the clergy are making what they honestly think is the best decision under difficult circumstances, and I really appreciate the sympathy of those who have been sympathetic; however, I feel the perspective expressed here on that decision is also valid.  As far as I can make out, the evidence suggests that even actually sharing the chalice holds no risk of spreading anything.

 

O kind, self wounding Pelican, wherefore

Hast Thou withdrawn from us Thy breast?

Why forsaken dost Thou leave Thy young

Perishing for thirst of Thee within Thy very nest?

 

O stewards of His mysteries, where are your eyes?

That on remotest chance of sparing earthly life

Unwitting tempt your sheep toward the spirit’s death

And will not hear their anguished pleas for Life.

 

O Pelican, I would not have dreamed to say to Thee,

“Give me Thy Blood,” I said, “Do not deceive,”

And yet Thou gavest me Life and all Thyself.

Yet Life not given could not thus have grieved.

 

O Pelican, why hast Thou thus replaced Thy love

With mechanical rite of mere valid sense?

Why hast Thou withdrawn Thy covenant complete?

The outward sign of inward grace defence.

 

O Pelican, Forsaken One, remember, heal and spare,

For valuing what Thou gavest we bear uttermost contempt,

From valley of the shadow with despairing breath we plead,

To whom Thou hast promised no test beyond their strength.

 

Cherry Foster