We are about to miss the eucharist for the third time since the second lockdown which is not, the government insists, a lockdown. There was no answer to our archbishops, nor to the leaders of any other Church about why this was necessary. We have grown used to it. I know of no one who believes a word that comes out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, and the moment it is safe for someone else to take on the role, all the mistakes of the last year will be loaded on him as the scapegoat, and he will be gone. But the damage done will remain. We are told all this is to ‘save lives’, but what sort of life do our rulers imagine we want or need apart from the bare fact of breathing?
I am not among those who think this is a “scandemic” or think there is a conspiracy afoot. I was taught that given a choice between “cock up” and “conspiracy” that, since governments can seldom organise the proverbial in a brewery, the former is the more likely culprit. I accept, as many of us do, that this is about ‘saving lives’, but it does rather raise the question on what life is for? If we cannot see and hold our dying relatives; if we cannot visit the sick; if we cannot help others except in a “bubble”, if the elderly in care homes are dying unshriven and unheld, then just what is this “life” we are saving, beyond the act of breathing? It is as though the government knows the price of life but not its value.
I can’t help but wonder if a society based on consumerism and individualism can cope with a pandemic? Absent consuming, what is it we do? Absent others, why are we here? When we say “life is for living” we don’t usually just mean that literally. We usually mean that by doing x, y or z, we enhance our experience of life. But in a society which does not believe there is any life but this one, where death is so taboo, life in any form is preferable to the risk of dying, perhaps our rulers forgot the question of what life is for and what we do with it?
But when this is over, what of the small business owners who will have lost not only their livelihoods, but something in which they have invested their very selves? No doubt the Exchequer will miss the tax receipts, but what about the social capital? Small businesses are part of the weft and warp of lives in our towns and cities, they help form our social networks, they are part of the social fabric. Absent them, what then? Dystopian town centres with empty shops? Dystopian lives with empty centres?
Donne was correct, no man (or woman for that matter) is an island. Yet, as we walk the streets and see others, and ourselves, socially distance, we send out the signal that we are, each, an island. There really is no such thing as society.
As we approach the end of the Church year, we need no reminder that Advent is a period of waiting and repentance. Yet the temptation to start Christmas early is strong in the sense that we are all in need of cheering up. I caught a minister the other day on the radio talking about the possibility of cancelling or postponing Christmas, and I wondered how anyone could mind showing himself to be that ignorant? But then from someone in a government which allows us into supermarkets but not churches because we need what the former supply and not what they latter supplies, why be surprised?
Even if you do not believe, as I do, that in the Eucharist you are receiving the body and blood of Christ, then church still has functions that people need. For many elderly people it is the focus of their life, and without it there is no focus. We meet together to sing to the Lord. But we can’t gather together, and even when we could, we weren’t allowed to sing. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
As we approach Advent, it’s a time to reflect on what we think life is for, and perhaps wonder what the way in which those in power have reacted to this crisis says about the chasm between their version of the “good life” and a real version.