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Posted on Mon 6 April 2020

COVID-19 and the Spiritual

We are in the midst of responding to a pandemic the like of which has not been seen before in living memory. Whether it turns out to be as apocalyptic as is being claimed, remains to be seen but it is entirely understandable that, faced with different scientific models, the government should opt to make provision for the worst case scenario.

Each day we are inundated with news about the medical aspects of the pandemic and the economic and social consequences of the government’s response to it.This is, of course, to be expected but what I have missed seeing is discussion of the spiritual effects of the crisis and what a spiritual response should be.

Quite apart from those who have had the illness, there are going to be profound psychological and relational consequences of the lockdown: being unable to work doesn’t just hit the pocket, it injures the soul. We are intrinsically social beings and not being able to gather for work or play will have short and long term effects on relationships for most of us who are not inclined to be hermits.

So what does the spiritual realm have to offer in these circumstances? A recent study by the Office of National Statistics showed a dynamic connection between faith and good health. At the very least then, we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith at this time. Those who do not wish to benefit from them needn’t do so but they should be available for those who do.The mass and social media are both crucial in alerting the public to the availability of help in their faith at this time.

Numerous studies worldwide have shown the importance of the spiritual in the healing process.Prayer is known to increase confidence in the possibility of being healed and others praying for us gives us a sense of a social net when we are feeling alone and threatened.I was very moved by the story from Northern Ireland where a cleaner, the only one allowed to approach the patient, asked whether he could pray for him.The patient firmly believes that this is what set him on the path to recovery.

The role of doctors, nurses and paramedics is rightly in the news these days but we haven’t heard much about hospital chaplains.At this time of stress, and even of grief, their presence with both staff and patients is most important.Visiting wards( with proper protective kit, of course), praying with people when requested to do so, comforting the bereaved and rejoicing with those being discharged are important elements of their work.So also is listening to and counselling staff working under stress in difficult conditions.Let us raise a cheer for both clergy and lay chaplains throughout the NHS!

I do hope and pray they are being given full scope for their ministry in the safest ways possible at this time. The situation is repeatedly being compared to the Second World War and, no doubt, there are points of comparison in restrictions on freedoms, queueing for food and facing a common enemy. At crucial points in the war, when Britain was facing defeat at Dunkirk or when a risky initiative like D- Day had to be undertaken, King GeorgeVI, with the full support of Winston Churchill, called for a National Day of Prayer.Churchill is a hero for our present Prime Minister. Will he emulate him in encouraging HM the Queen to call the nation to prayer that the crisis may abate quickly, that suffering will be minimised and that normal life may be restored for us all? It would be wonderful if he could.I am sure the churches and all people of goodwill would support such a call.

Talking about prayer; it is such a pity that churches, and other places of worship, are not open for prayer. If it is true that church leaders themselves requested that they be closed down, now is the time to undo this mistake. Going to church is not the same as going to a pub or a football match. Provided that safe distancing is possible and is maintained, this is exactly the time when people will feel the need to go in and be quiet and, perchance, to pray for themselves or a loved one or even the situation as a whole. Why is this any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?

Finally, I would like to make a special appeal: Holy Week is around the corner and there is a venerable custom of all the churches together in a particular town or village taking out a procession on Good Friday. This could easily be done while maintaining safe distancing and could also be limited in terms of numbers but a procession, such as this, moving through our streets would be sign of cleansing and healing and of suffering producing hope.Let us have this one indulgence, with whatever safeguards you deem necessary, and, I am sure, the results will not be negative for our communities.

This Easter, similarly, will be the first ever when there is to be no public worship in the churches.Nothing is more needed now than the pledge of new life which Easter brings.If we can’t gather in our churches, could small groups, keeping a safe distance, be allowed to gather in parks, large churchyards and other open spaces? Again, the numbers, time limits and safety measures could be specified but such rejoicing in the new life brought by the Risen Christ could herald a turning point in the battle against this pandemic and set the tone for the rest of Spring 2020. All of this may sound radical to some but the proposals are designed to alert us to spiritual resources to fight the pandemic and to turn us towards the one who holds the whole world in his hands.

An abridged version of the article was published in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 7th April 2020. This article is below or can be accessed via this link: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/06/open-churches-easter-give-people-hope

We are in the midst of responding to a pandemic the like of which has not been experienced in living memory. Whether it turns out to be as apocalyptic as is claimed remains to be seen, but it is understandable that the Government should opt to make provision for the worst-case scenario.

In all the discussions about the medical, economic and social implications of this crisis, however, I have missed any discussion of its spiritual effects. The lockdown itself will have profound psychological consequences: being unable to work doesn’t just hit the pocket, it injures the soul. We are intrinsically social beings and not being able to gather for work or play will have short- and long-term effects on relationships for most of us who are not inclined to be hermits.

Spiritually, a recent study by the Office of National Statistics showed a dynamic connection between faith and good health. Indeed, numerous studies have shown the importance of the spiritual in the healing process. Prayer is known to increase confidence in the possibility of being healed, and others praying for us gives us a sense of a social net when we are feeling alone and threatened. At this time of stress, the presence of chaplains in hospitals, visiting wards, is most important.

At the very least, we should be providing, rather than withdrawing, resources for strengthening and supporting people’s faith at this time. It is such a pity, then, that churches, and other places of worship, are not open for prayer. If it is true that church leaders themselves requested that they be closed down, now is the time to undo this mistake.

Going to church is not the same as going to a pub or a football match. Provided that safe distancing is possible and is maintained, this is exactly the time when people will feel the need to go in and be quiet and, perchance, to pray for themselves or a loved one or even the situation as a whole. Why is this any more dangerous than shopping in a supermarket or travelling on the London Underground?

We are now, of course, in the run-up to Easter. There is a venerable custom in Holy Week of all the churches in a particular town or village taking out a procession on Good Friday. This could easily be done while maintaining safe distancing and limiting the number of participants. A procession, moving through our streets, would be a sign of cleansing and healing and of suffering producing hope. Let us have this one indulgence, with whatever safeguards are deemed necessary, and I am sure the results will not be negative for our communities.

This Easter, similarly, will be the first ever when there is to be no public worship in the churches. Nothing is more needed now than the pledge of new life which Easter brings. If we can’t gather in our churches, could small groups, keeping a safe distance, be allowed to congregate in parks, large churchyards and other open spaces? Again, safety measures could be specified, but such rejoicing in the new life brought by the Risen Christ could herald a turning point in the battle against this pandemic and set the tone for the rest of the spring.

All of this may sound radical to some, but these proposals are designed to alert us to spiritual resources to fight the pandemic, and to turn us towards the one who holds the whole world in his hands.

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