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