Most of the blogs I’ve written this year have tried to be positive. Many in the last few weeks have been about how to cultivate an inner life of thanksgiving in the midst of the hardest times. But I fear I have been a touch unbalanced- there are times you have to acknowledge that this is not good. And- truth be told- we should be finding lockdown hard.
It feels relevant to say that at the moment because all the indications are that the Government will produce a slower route out of lockdown than anticipated a few months back. Does anybody else remember “Don’t get together at Christmas because you will be able to have normal family gatherings at Easter”? I’m not sure we envisaged that being on a park bench half way between respective homes. It is also important because I am seeing a number of pieces around arguing for the permanent continuation of forms of work and church that have started in lockdown- and I have deep reservations about that. Now I should acknowledge my standpoint- I write as somebody who is single. This time last year I spoke on singleness (to unmasked people sitting next to each other!) and I argued that the choice for the Christian doesn’t have to be between the joy of marriage and the loneliness of singleness- it is possible to have a flourishing life of community as a single person within a church family. That makes it more plausible to suggest celibacy as a pathway for the same sex attracted Christian or one who struggles to find another Christian to marry. The difficulty, of course, is that I said that weeks before a flourishing physical community became outlawed as a concept. So I am writing from a particular perspective- you will need to judge the extent to which that unduly influences what I write! But, to be honest, there are reasons why we should all share the same perspective.
It is vital that we ground what we do in a biblical understanding of humanity. God creates Adam and Eve in His image. Much could be said but for the moment let’s limit it to this- Adam and Eve are physical beings made for relationship and work in communion with God. That really matters for wherever any of those aspects are removed a dehmanizing effect will take place. We will be less than we were made to be. Now, of course, all of those elements will be broken at some level in this world- we face physical limits, relationship breakdown and unemployment. The new creation alone will make them perfect. But it is always the case that the Christian goal is to shape our life as far as possible around the plan that God instituted at creation- that is the basis for our sexual ethics for instance.
And that must apply across the board not just sexual ethics. We are physical beings. Christians are called to greet one another with a holy kiss not a wave. That seems to be deliberate for the physical binds us together in a reminder of our fundamental oneness. Moreoever, we are designed to see the physical expressions on each other’s faces. So when experts suggest that we wouldn’t lose much if we permanently stopped shaking hands or continued to wear face masks I want to argue strongly to the contrary. It would be a denial of one aspect of our humanity. To be more cynical I am tempted to question whether any of those arguing for permanent limits on human contact are single and been deprived of it for a year!
We are relational beings. God says that it is not good for human beings to be alone. At various points this year we have been discouraged from “unnecessary social contact.” This is an oxymoron though. To be authentically human is to be connected. I understand the desire that has come about to work more from home in the future as a result of lessons learnt from the pandemic. But I am also convinced that it is highly dangerous and will inevitably lead to greater loneliness, isolation and consequent lack of productivity. It is never wise to ignore the basic shape of our humanity designed by God- we are made to relate not be alone. For myself I am very keen that the church office returns to being a place where we gather because you simply don’t get to bounce ideas off each other, find out urgent prayer needs and so on whilst working apart.
We are made to work. Personally I haven’t actually been short of that this year. But, talking to others, I know that being paid to be on furlough is not actually very satisfying. No surprise there- it is not how God has made us to live. That’s worth noting- just because the Government expands a furlough scheme it doesn’t mean that it it fine for people not to be able to work.
Above all else we are made to enjoy communion with God. Now mercifully lockdown doesn’t prevent that- it is why I have been able to write positive pieces about what the Christian possesses at times like this. The Government deserves credit for its unexpected decision to allow churches to remain open during this last lockdown- perhaps a recognition that the corporate worship of God is essential. And yet you can’t get round the fact that the highest joy in heaven is seeing the glory of God and responding in song. We shouldn’t therefore be surprised if our Christian lives feel somewhat flatter than normal with corporate singing prevented. One of the highest joys possible for a human being has been removed from us.
Putting that together- lockdown is fundamentally dehumanizing. So does that make it wrong? Not necessarily- after all, death is fairly dehumanizing as well. Concern for humanity includes overwhelmed medical staff. That’s why I haven’t written a piece like this earlier on in the pandemic. But now I am concerned that we have got used to it- that we are no longer shocked at the Government’s willingness to dictate who we should have in our homes or with whom we can have physical contact. It’s lovely that the Government has decreed today that those in care homes can hold hands with one other person from March but it is also sort of shocking. In other words, such compulsory measures must only be used in utterly exceptional and highly limited circumstances. I find it very hard to argue that these can be justified once, say, those over 50 have received a vaccine shot that gives them a high level of immunity- and even that is stretching it. Personally it is why I am praying that the Government will ease regulations quickly. To be honest, if limits on singing, physical relationships and mask wearing are preserved for a significant period of time (into the late summer, say, as some are indicating) then many churches will have difficult decisions to make- because there is only so long that you can justify setting aside certain things the Bible regards as essential to our humanity.
But we also need clarity to shape what comes next. I am not saying that all virtual meetings should be banned. There are certain meetings that wouldn’t take place without that option- the half hour prayer meeting when it would take that long to get there and back, the hour long seminar for people spread across the country. I suspect such things that have been established in the last year or so will continue on Zoom. Maybe there are options to have one church small group that stays virtual for, say, couples where they can’t both get out in the evening because of childcare responsibilities. But that’s quite different from meetings that were in person staying virtual. I would be deeply loathed to see that for God had made us physical and relational.
Yes- we can be thankful and delight in the Lord’s presence during a lockdown. But it isn’t good. As such we should be longing that it is removed as soon as possible and be very cautious about continuing any elements of it into the long term future.