Thinking theologically in a time of viral catastrophe

By John Gillibrand
August 20, 2020

The crucible of Christian theology is catastrophe. Readers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer know this. However, it is not just a question of one particular theology and one particular theologian. All of Christian theology is shaped both by the catastrophe of the cross and by the sense of the first Christian writers that they were living in catastrophic times, where the end was very close. As they wrote about the cross, they were writing both in that context and for that context. 

At a press conference on the 31st July 2020, with the UK Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty expressed the view that, “We have probably reached near the limits, or the limits, in terms of what we can do in opening up society. What that means, potentially, is that if we wish to do more things in the future we may have to do less of some other things.” 

There would be “difficult trade-offs” required, Whitty suggested, in, in order to fulfil some treasured objectives – such as opening up schools. 

As Jesus pointed out, it is easier to forecast the weather than it is to interpret what is going on right now. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56)

That is always true, and is most certainly true today. But let us suppose that we have indeed reached the limits of what we can do. This will have huge implications for all kinds of social institutions, including the churches. In this, churches and other faith communities cannot claim special privilege: we, alongside others, could become part of the necessary trade-offs. 

In this situation, the Christian churches need to hold fast to Christian theology – thinking deeply about the grounds and shape of the hope that is within us. There is an attitude that we can do without theology as long as we have faith. But now, more than ever, faith must seek to understand. Theological reflection has a possibly unique contribution to make in the midst of catastrophe. The last thing we should do is turn our back upon it, or it may well be the last thing that we as churches will do. We must rediscover the depths of our commitment to theological reflection, as essential to our very existence. 

We are living in an utterly new context. It is not the new normal, but rather the new chaotic, not yet taking shape. In a new context, we need new thinking. In the crucible of catastrophe, our theology and indeed our ecclesiology is formed. As we think new thoughts, we draw upon the richness of scripture, tradition and previous experience – they are all that we have – but these are new thoughts, nonetheless. 

Over decades, many have called for mission and evangelism to be our priority. In the context of those decades of secularisation, churches both locally and institutionally have obsessed about all kinds of things. In many ways, we have avoided the priority of mission and evangelism, because they were, in our circumstances, too difficult to engage with. It was easier to engage with second-order issues. But now, it is no longer a question of the priority of mission and evangelism. There is only mission and evangelism – not bludgeoning and proselytising (as these words are misused). In the midst of this darkness, we need to get hold of hope – the abundant life that came after the catastrophe of the Cross – and to share it with others. To offer anything other than Good News only is to offer something less than the world, and our local communities, need. 

Over the years, many have also called for, and worked sacrificially for, greater ecumenical cooperation. But now, it is no longer a priority for some, but is rather essential to our Christian witness. I am fed by a particular Christian tradition, I know where I am on the ecumenical spectrum, but now in the face of Coronavirus, can anyone really claim that the differences between us are of any significance compared to the shared challenges which we face? As local churches reflect upon and pray about the nature of our mission in coming weeks, our sharing of the Good News, we should exclude the idea of doing this on our own, without ecumenical cooperation. We need to listen to each other as we have never listened before. 

One traditional model of Christian mission has been to get as many people as possible under one roof. Missional success has been measured in terms of attendance. A full church was a sign of achievement. If safe social distancing stays in place over coming months, we will need to think again about that model. Many quite large buildings will only have space for quite small congregations. There will be pressure to close some buildings, because they are no longer financially sustainable in the face of a post-Coronavirus recession, but we need to pause and reflect that – as local churches – we may need all the space that we have available, while sharing it better. These decisions are best taken by looking at the worshipping needs of whole local communities, and seeing how, on an ecumenical basis, they can be met. 

However it is not simply a question of meeting worshipping needs. Over the decades, many have called for local churches to have greater involvement in meeting the social needs of the local community. If we do not do it in times like these, when will we do it? Our social responsibility to the local community is integral to our shared mission. There is no place here for the local congregation as an inward-looking club of the like-minded, bothered by its own concerns, but with no wider concern. Our credibility in mission depends upon our showing how in faith we share with those outside the church in responding to the realities with which we are all struggling. We need to show the connection between faith and everything else, and live it. 

Let us suppose – God forbid – that a second spike of Coronavirus cases comes, and our locality, or indeed the country in which we live, once more enters a full lock down, perhaps even more rigorous than the first. Where then is Christian mission? These are restrictions which Jesus himself never experienced, as he was baptised, as he gathered large crowds, as he met with his disciples in the Upper Room to institute the Eucharist. In the Christian Sacraments, there is a vital sense of being present to others, and of sharing in God’s presence. In an atomised and horribly divided world, it is our way of living otherwise. Yet, until a vaccine becomes available, we may well find ourselves being forced into the atomised and lonely world against which we have so long witnessed. What is Christian witness without Baptism as the sacrament of initiation, and the Holy Eucharist as the food of Christian pilgrims upon their continuing journey? This is a reality which we have begun, at least in part, to experience in recent months, and there are no easy answers to the question. 

As lockdown progressed, many churches for the first time turned to online worship. Many of us have realised that we are called to maintain an online offering of worship, even if the old normal returned tomorrow, because the best of this has enhanced the accessibility of worship. People with disabilities have had an unprecedented access to our shared worship, and have rightly complained that we did not think of doing this until we had to. We had turned mission into a process of getting people over the doorstep of the church building – there is so much more to it than that – but also made the doorstep ever so high. I am not thinking here simply of the question of wheelchair access but the whole range of ways in which church buildings have been made inaccessible to disabled people. If we are worried about a lack of access to sacred space and to the sacraments, and needing to do some quite urgent theological reflection upon this, it is time that we listened to the voices of those for whom that lack of access has been a fact of life for many a year, those whose online space for worship, very late in the day, we have gate crashed, and called our own. Such listening is long overdue, for its own sake, but it now for all our sakes. As ever with theological reflection, and when we are reflecting upon the intractable, first be attentive.

In these recent months, voices have been raised saying that we must reopen the economy at all costs. If this means sacrificing the lives of some to the coronavirus, this is a price that we must pay. The argument does not bear too much examination. It does not seem to allow for the thought that we did not lockdown soon enough, or that we are unlocking too hastily: such things will be determined in future enquiries, but if these factors lead to a second spike, then the damage to the economy will be incalculable. The economic system may well stop functioning in any recognisable form. But even that is beside the point. If the Church does not stand for the sacredness of life itself, it stands for nothing. In all our worrying about sacred space, and controversies about the opening and shutting of church doors, we have missed the truly sacred: each individual, God given life. Jesus said: “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” 

Christian churches are called to theological reflection upon what abundant life looks like for each one of us. In the middle of this ghastly, absurd mess, what is the abundant life to which each is called? Maybe we can only know abundant life when we take a stand in favour of protecting life itself, in favour of true values against those who reduce everything to economic value. If church leaders are silent on this, when – on earth – will they speak? I have reflected elsewhere on power as the great problem of the church. As so many of the familiar markers have shifted, we have felt it draining away. Yet what power we have, and what power we have left, we must use. We must interpret the time, and we must speak. 

On Christmas Eve many churches are thronged for the Midnight Mass. For the first time in my life and ministry, I do not know if that will happen this year in the way that it always has. But this I know, God is with us, and will be with us then. 

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© John Gillibrand is Vicar of Pontarddulais with Penllergaer, in the Church in Wales Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. He is an Ekklesia associate, writer and independent scholar. His other writings for Ekklesia can be found here.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.