Covid - 19 Church Times Articles

THE immediacy of the present threat is, in the present age, unprecedented. There are parallels, however, in other existential threats that humanity has faced. The ecological crisis is one; another is the nuclear threat — not eliminated, but felt more keenly by a former generation.

One was C. S. Lewis, whose words, written in 1948:

“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors — anesthetics; but we have that still.

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

On Living in an Atomic Age

Adapted from “Church Times” Lift Up Your Hearts No.1 27th March 2020.

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HUMAN BEINGS find uncertainty very difficult. To bear it, we need two things in particular to be in place: clear guidance, and the support of other people, albeit through virtual communications. As an Anglican priest and a group analyst, I wish both to acknowledge the gravity of this situation and to suggest possible ways of surviving it.

A key problem is the unknown nature of the coronavirus. As one statistically-informed colleague put it: "We all need to self-isolate. It is weird that everything has to stop. There is no precedent at all, because, in most human emergencies, people get stuck together rather than apart. Even during the Blitz, people went down to the air-raid shelters together and came up again together."

This comment indicates that not only is the situation unknown, but the need for self-isolation removes the usual group support that has helped us in the past, even in wartime. Regarding clear guidance, however uncomfortable the instructions are, the regular briefings by the Government are trying to address this need as the situation unfolds.

TO SURVIVE this indefinite period of response to an unknown virus, we will need resilience. Diane Coutu has written that resilience "is one of the great puzzles of human nature, like creativity or the religious instinct". She identifies three relevant aspects of resilience: "facing down reality", "the search for meaning", and "ritualised ingenuity".

Resilient people have a down-to-earth view of the need for survival and recognise the danger of using denial as a coping mechanism. Facing up to the need for self-isolation and social distancing is essential if we are to prevent the voracious spread of the virus.

When it comes to the search for meaning, religious groups are ahead of the game. The most successful organisations are those that have strong value systems.

Key to fostering resilience is the ability to avoid taking the stance of a victim.

The third aspect, "ritualised ingenuity", is the ability to improvise a solution to a problem in an inventive way. Resilient people and companies, Coutu writes, "face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air".

If you prefer a more theological approach to resilience, Justine Allain-Chapman, in Resilient Pastors (SPCK, 2012), offers an appropriately Lenten exploration of the desert as metaphor. By embracing the desert - and this is certainly a metaphorical desert of exclusion from everyday life, including worship - we can encounter God and ourselves, which can lead to altruistic living and pastoral responsibility. At the moment, the latter is being redefined to allow for the unusual circumstances, and many ministry teams are setting up phone hubs, besides streaming services.

The desert involves struggle, which can enhance spiritual growth, but it is a fine balance for the most robust of natures. For those with mental-health conditions, the situation can tip them from management of their symptoms to overload and crisis.

As a group analyst, I was initially dismayed by the apparent attack on groups involved in our response to this virus. I have been struck, however, by the increased use and dependence on virtual groups, whether in social media or on television screens, and the evidence of "ritualised ingenuity" in many new initiatives.

Virtual choirs and exercise groups have the potential to ease the discomfort of self-isolation and social distancing. One retired clergy couple have written to me: "We are well used to reading, thinking, writing, conversing, and praying at home, but we know that we will need to dig deep to keep ourselves healthy mentally. We expect that there will be a great flourishing of new methods of remote communication, and will participate in them and contribute to them if we can."

Amen to that.

The Revd Dr Anne C. Holmes, a former mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist, practical theologian, and an NSM in the diocese of Oxford.

Church Times March 27th, page 12 How to build resilience during Covid-19 crisis. (abbreviated)