Something has gone badly wrong with the Established Church when it appears more indignant at the breaking of social distance rules than the ruining of two marriages by the same politician. On Sunday’s GB News morning show even the unflappable Nigel Farage was unusually wide eyed when the Bishop of Manchester, Rt Rev David Walker, remarked of the now disgraced Matt Hancock:
“‘So, I think I’m more worried about the fact that he failed to keep social distancing than I am about the fact that here is a middle-aged bloke having a bit of a fling.’
To be fair to bishop David, when pushed by Farage that the Church should surely supply more leadership on the subject of adultery, he did add that such behaviour was in the order of serious betrayal.
But the bishop’s interview also pointed to a stranger phenomenon taking place inside the Church of England: the way Covid compliance has become an article of faith.
Hancock did not just have a fling with an employee this year, he has also flirted with authoritarianism. And just as the drama must surely raise questions about his flagrant hypocrisy, it should also call in to question the need for draconian lockdowns and social distancing rules that continue to cause havoc and collateral damage.
When on the airwaves, the bishop of Manchester downplayed this wider democratic adultery. But this is par for the course. Throughout the pandemic, the Church of England has been nonchalant about the state of our liberties.
Ironically on so many other hot-button issues the Church has not held back. Indeed, when it comes to social justice, racism, Brexit, fair pay, immigration, and military interventions, senior clerics have not hesitated to speak to journalists. Yet when it comes to the ethics of lockdowns these ministers have retreated, pleading the Fifth Amendment, despite the huge impact these restrictions have had on church services and freedom of religion.
What beggars belief is that in a historic organisation that prides itself on diversity and independent thought, no senior person has come forward with a dissenting voice. Our country is ripe for one of its great institutions to break ranks with the current Covid narrative. Surely the British people need the churches to make a brave and principled stance? I would bet that this would gain the sort of respect and traction that Anglicans have been at pains to muster for years – even if the current government and the opposition parties gave them a rough ride.
Sadly, the Church is meant to be a communion of souls but it is increasingly being morphed into a bland corporation indistinguishable from any other NGO, where those who are not ‘on message’ are shuffled off into the sidelines. Why are we not seeing episcopal purple on anti-lockdown demonstrations but are spotting them at the front of Extinction Rebellion marches?
For me the penny dropped in the first lockdown when the instruction from our ecclesiastical bosses instructed vicars to go beyond the emergency law and abandon our church buildings in the name of health and safety. In one diocese there was even the threat of disciplinary action. For me, I shall never forget the moment back in March 2020 when a churchwarden rushed into church and handed me the new directive. I felt physically sick. I have struggled to feel anything like a company man ever since.
Does the Church have a theological justification for its lockdown compliance? The nearest I observed back in Spring 2021 was an attempt to garnish the government messages to stay at home as acts of sacrificial Christian love and charity to our family and neighbours. Subsequent statements acknowledged the wider damage but did so in a tone that made it appear as if the trashing of the economy and the risk of rising mental breakdowns among the young was nothing more than unfortunate but necessary collateral damage.
So my question now for the Church of England is how they plan to guide people – systematically scared rigid over the past 18 months – back to normality? It will take more than ringing bells on July 19 or holding special celebratory liturgies. Trauma and the domination of fear cannot simply be flipped into jubilation. Social distancing rules and mask wearing continue to reinforce an unhealthy worldview where risk taking is to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps our churches could symbolically begin by immediately restoring singing, normal seating without mask wearing while also inviting the sharing of the common cup?
Likewise, an examination of what happened to our God-given liberties should not be swept under the carpet. In all these things the Church must surely be instrumental in taking the lead. My apprehension is that as an organisation we have lost track of the sacred to make much headway in the business of courage.