Hannah Rich considers why withdrawing in response to coronavirus feels so unnatural to religious groups. 17/03/2020
For the last few weeks, there has been a new sacramental offering at many churches: hand gel, administered solemnly along with the hymn sheets and newsletters. It was the first of many changes to worship in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The sign of peace has been replaced with elbow bumps, hand waves or, in some cases, whole congregations learning the British Sign Language sign for ‘peace be with you‘. In most churches, only bread was served at communion. Quakers have stopped the practice of shaking hands, which usually symbolises the end of a meeting, and online gatherings have already started in some areas. Church congregations that meet in exactly the kinds of public spaces that have closed, or soon may close – theatres, cinemas, schools – are finding themselves without a place to meet.
The situation is clearly changing rapidly. When I first finished writing this piece, the latest guidelines from the Church of England involved the abandonment of post–service tea and biscuits in line with public health guidelines. By the time it was uploaded, the Church had announced the suspension of all collective worship with immediate effect, an unprecedented step. (Some churches in the United States had already taken this decision and this piece in the New York Times reflects beautifully on the strangeness of a “Sunday without church”.)
Last week, Jewish communities found themselves wrestling with how to celebrate Purim at a time where public festivities are being discouraged. With some mosques already closing their doors, Muslims are also looking ahead to how different this Ramadan, which begins in four weeks’ time, might look without the possibility of breaking the fast together at collective iftar meals.
Strange and difficult as the changes may feel, in some ways they served as a powerful reminder for people of faith that prayers, spiritual practices and even acts of hospitality cannot exist in isolation from the world we’re living in.
Football stadiums, those other great cathedrals of quasi–religious devotion, were also empty this Saturday, marking for many people the loss of another ninety minutes of the weekend spent focussing together on something other than the everyday.
The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly exaggerated more than a little when he said that, “some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much, more important than that.” But it is true that football, like Sunday worship, is a valuable shared endeavour that has somehow always seemed to transcend everyday life and death in a way that is now challenged by the intrusion of coronavirus into its sacred space.
The other thing is that going to watch a football match, much like going to church, is doing something. For activist types used to understanding the world in terms of practical action, the act of doing nothing doesn’t come naturally. For sports fans, it feels wrong to have to stay at home rather than actively supporting your club. Similarly, for people of faith, it feels wrong to have to physically retreat from a supportive community at a time of crisis. Wrong that the answer to the situation might actually be to reduce our interaction rather than ramp it up.
Many of us are used to the solution being to join another rota, start another initiative or do something else, whereas now we are being told to strip out even the simple hospitality of a cup of coffee after church or an iftar meal. It feels uncomfortable and unnatural. While for Christians this season of Lent is traditionally a time for giving things up, it often becomes conversely a time when ‘taking something up’ is suggested.
None of this is to say we should literally be doing nothing; the emergence of community efforts to deliver shopping to self–isolated or housebound neighbours has been one of the glimmers of hope in the last few days.
But while it might feel counterintuitive to withdraw, the way we practice our faith has become the answer to our own collective prayers for protection. What began with choosing to share hand gel rather than handshakes has now evolved into the need to stop meeting together for worship at all and stay at home in isolation as an act of compassion to the vulnerable.
The act of giving something up for Lent is not meant to be easy, but is ultimately a positive act drawing us into discipline and contemplation. The same might be true of all the things we will be asked to give up and withdraw from in the coming weeks. It may, in fact, be what saves us.
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