The beginning of September marks the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of a new term. All of us have memories of returning to school at the start of a new academic year: wondering what our new class will be like; the mixture of excitement and apprehension at seeing old friends and discovering new ones. Seeing small children walking to school this morning in Brussels with packed satchels is for me a real sign of hope. And teachers will be wanting to give their pupils the best welcome and the best start to a new year.
This year, though, returning to school has a different feel. Children are physically distanced from one another and operate in social bubbles. Older children are required to wear masks. In the school at which my son teaches the primary aged children have to wash their hands six times a day – that alone is a major logistical exercise! The social, educational and mental health of our children depends on them returning to school, yet Covid-19 means this can only be done under strict conditions – for the wellbeing of parents, grandparents and teachers – and even the children themselves – although few of them are at serious risk from the virus.
The church in practice aligns itself to the school year, so September marks the ‘rentrée’ for us too. As adults, we know well that the restrictions of the past 6 months are by no means behind us. Covid-19 is a highly infectious and dangerous disease that has spread across the whole world. The church is a social institution that brings together large numbers of people in confined spaces, many of whom are in a vulnerable demographic. So we are continually having to balance our longing for corporate worship and close fellowship with our shared responsibility for controlling the Covid-19 virus.
Today marks the beginning of ‘creation-tide’ in our church calendar. Theologically, I start from the premise that it is we human beings rather than God who are primarily responsible for the pandemic. A recent Grove Booklet by TearFund director Ruth Valerio and others makes this point well. Whether the virus jumped across the species barrier from bats to humans at a live animal market in Wuhan, or whether it escaped from a Wuhan laboratory – it was human behaviour that triggered the release of the virus into the human population. It was willful negligence that frustrated initial attempts to control it. And it was globalised interaction and mass travel that enabled the virus to spread rapidly to every continent. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes might fall under the category of ‘natural disasters’, but the pandemic is mainly a disaster of our own making.
So it is equally down to us humans to control it. ‘Controlling the virus’ means observing the detailed hygiene and physical distancing rules that are starting to become second nature for us. But as the crisis continues it becomes clear that more fundamental issues of social justice are at play too. Serious illness and death are more prevalent in certain disadvantaged sectors of our societies: those living in cramped housing, BAME communities, the poor and the obese (and obesity is often linked with poverty). In our developed countries, it is those in blue-collar employment who are suffering the most from the economic consequences of the disease. And people in poorer countries have faced economic disaster under the necessary conditions of lockdown. Far from being ‘the great leveller’, the virus has laid bare deep and nefarious social inequalities between people. Healing the world means addressing social injustice.
At a personal level, the experience of lockdown has challenged and provoked me in some unexpected ways. Firstly, I found myself enjoying the stability of having to stay in one place. I was able to develop a daily pattern of prayer and physical exercise that is so much more difficult if one is continually on the move. Secondly, I found I was re-connecting with the natural environment in a deeper way. I became deeply aware of the birdsong in Spring, I noticed the stars in the night sky, I loved the deep peacefulness that descended on our neighbourhood and rejoiced in the improved air quality. And without air travel my own carbon footprint was vastly reduced. Thirdly, I discovered possibilities for using technology for communication. Suddenly meetings that used to be planned weeks or months ahead could take place almost immediately on Zoom. And linked to this, I’ve discovered a new and more nuanced approach to ‘presence’.
St Paul on a number of occasions talks about how he is present with the churches he has founded in spirit though not in body. The Holy Spirit links us together in a spiritual sense, and through our prayers for one another, even when we can’t be present to each other physically. I believe that tools such as Zoom and Teams have given added meaning to Paul’s insights.
We can now be present to each other across a whole continent – both audibly and visibly – albeit that we can’t reach out and touch each other. So during the spring and summer the Diocese in Europe has been able to stage Zoom-based worship that brought people together who had never previously seen each others’ faces. I have had some of the deepest one to one pastoral conversations of my episcopal ministry because I have been at home, properly centred and focussed, with all the relevant materials to hand, rather than trying to follow a delicate situation on email from a hotel bedroom or via a poor quality phone signal on a train. Like St. Paul, I have wondered: ‘how can I best be present to our diocese spiritually, even though I can’t be present in body?’ And, rather to my surprise, I have discovered that a high level of presence – and sometimes to many people at once – is far more possible than I had realised.
Looking to the term ahead, staff in my office have already spent many hours on the bewildering issues that bedevil international travel in the Covid-19 era. Events that involve lots of people coming together in multiple destinations (notably for ordinations) with shifting quarantine rules are particularly complex to organise. My office is all too aware of the upset that is caused when episcopal plans change, and a visit has to be cancelled. Under the ‘old normal’ this almost never happened. But now, a change in quarantine rules can mean expensive cancellations and disappointment all round.
For many reasons, I am therefore planning to curtail travel – and especially air travel – in the term ahead. I want to set the best example in terms of controlling the virus, aware that travel is one of the most significant ways in which it spreads. And I’m aware of the sheer difficulty of making coherent and consistent travel plans at the moment.
To be specific: two of the countries for which I am lead bishop are France and Switzerland. The level of infections in both these countries, the reciprocal restrictions between them and Belgium, and the level of unpredictability and health risks involved mean, I think, that it will be better not to arrange visits to these two countries until after Christmas. I hope this decision on my part might help chaplaincies with their forward planning arrangements. And I want actively to explore how I can be present to people in ways other than physical presence.
Yet it is ‘la rentrée’. The children are returning to school, people are beginning new jobs in new countries, and some are seeking a place to worship. A sense of excitement is mixed with realism about the virus. And a key challenge at this moment for all clergy and lay leaders is: ‘how do we provide a good level of welcome to new people in these Covid-19 circumstances?’ Without the post-service gathering for coffee, it is vital that welcomers are identified and signposted who can make contact with newcomers. We will need to be diligent in following up names, emails and phone numbers. And Zoom-based events need to be as friendly and inclusive as possible to those who might be lurking on the edges.
Covid-19 has reminded us of our need for our togetherness; it has prompted many to ask deep questions about the ordering of our lives and societies; and in some it has generated a new openness to the life of the spirit. As we begin a new term, I hope our churches and chaplaincies can be places of fellowship and care, places where the hard questions of life are addressed, and communities where people are able to find answers to spiritual questions through encounter with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
 Covid-19 Environment, Justice and the Future, Ruth Valerio et. al. Grove Ethics, Cambridge, 2020