“In the midst of this worldwide pandemic, is God at work?”
Having been invited to give a response to the article ‘God is at work?’ which was posted recently in Speaking Out on the website of Christians on Ageing, I must declare my credentials. I am a United Reformed Church minister, working on the south coast, mainly in the area of Bognor Regis. According to a “Which?” survey in 2019, it was the second-dreariest seaside resort in Britain, after Clacton-on-Sea. (We have done a little better this year – pre-Covid in February we had moved “up” to fourth place.) According to the 2011 census, a third of the population was over retirement age, and this trend is likely to be replicated in the future. Currently the area has above average levels of social deprivation and mental ill-health, especially in the older population. The second most commonly-spoken language after English is Polish. The many care homes in Bognor have historically hired a sizeable proportion of their employees from Eastern Europe. During the acute phase of the Covid outbreak, some 25% of the care homes in this part of West Sussex had Covid cases. In one street in Bognor, one home was decimated, whilst its next-door neighbour (owned by the same care provider) escaped the Covid visitation unscathed.
Is God at work? I am tempted to reply: “I hope not!” If God has been instrumental in allowing a vicious virus to claim so many lives, then he is a capricious and mean-spirited deity indeed. The coronavirus was first reported as affecting traders at a food market in Wuhan in China at the turn of the year. The jury is still out on the origin of the virus. Bats have been implicated as the “middle-man”, but in reality no-one knows. The only remedy has been the age-old one that humankind has resorted to in plagues gone by: social isolation in the form of “lock-down” of communities to contain the spread of the virus. During the acute phase of this “lockdown” in Britain, an increase in “community spirit” has been reported in many neighbourhoods and many people applauded the NHS and care workers on their doorsteps once a week. However, people, collaborative by nature, are not slow to conform to social norms, even new ones, and the acid test will be the outcome of the symbolic gesture: whether future funding reflects the erstwhile display of public enthusiasm. The Blitz spirit of the 1940s has been invoked as a parallel during the pandemic: in times of national crises, altruistic behaviour is frequently commented upon. This need not arise out of a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It may equally be hardwired into our instinct for survival as a species. The human instinct to co-operate has an evolutionary basis going back to our earliest origins.
Since 4th July 2020, churches and other places of public worship have been allowed to re-open. Many have not, especially those smaller churches whose congregations are themselves classified as vulnerable, due to age and or infirmity. It has been estimated by Age UK that some 2 million people over the age of 75 belong to the “digitally excluded” generation, in other words, without access to the internet or computer technology. Whilst online church services are witnessing a boom amongst computer-users, those who cannot participate (for various reasons, including cost, innate conservatism and a fear of the unknown) are left on the side-lines of the latest spectator sport. Furthermore, the BBC Sunday morning church service on BBC1, a lifeline during lockdown for those trapped in their own homes, or residential homes, has been withdrawn, and pensioners (unless they receive pension credit) will be expected to fund their own TV licences from August 2020.
It has been suggested that many will emerge stronger as a result of the Covid pandemic with their faith intact. Others will not. If we assert that God strengthens us through trials for the maturing of our faith, all sorts of questions arise about the benevolence and indeed omnipotence of a God who “sends” plague for punishment and is powerless (it would seem) to revoke its impact. The Bible does not tell us why we suffer; only that such things are beyond our comprehension. Look at the story of Job: the poetry is sublime but the suffering is hideous beyond all deserving – a myth for our Covid-times. But we are not talking about a causal relationship here. God does not “play dice” by jeopardising the laws of science. He is not the “first cause” of Covid 19. Rather, we should look at the other side of the equation and consider the passivity rather than the activity of the God who in the words of John’s Gospel “loved the world so much he gave his only Son”.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer mused upon the meaning of faith in the darkest days of his imprisonment in Nazi Germany. Faith is “throwing ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world”.
Is God at work?
I hope so.
Revd Dr Janet Hopewell
Associate Minister St Ninian’s Pagham, Bognor Regis, and Chaplain & Advocate for Older People