Last night I watched the Prime Minister announce what some are calling a lockdown in response to the spread of coronavirus across the UK. My own work has had me working from home for several weeks now and whilst some aspects have been a challenge I’m already doing what the Prime Minister is asking of people.
I also have to confess that I’m finding this period of time has some real positives to it. The most notable being that I get to spend much more time with my immediate family. I have every meal with my wife and son now. We pray much more like a family, and even though our church is closed they started streaming services on a Sunday and my vicar does morning prayer each day now online. I see more of my vicar now than I do normally, even if it is only virtually. Life has become much smaller and simpler. People complain that life has become fragmented, and it has in a sense, but there is also an argument, from my perspective, that it has become more integrated. All of the local supermarkets are infection hotspots and stripped bare by hoarders, the local markets and stores are still fine. I’ve been forced to become more grounded, smaller, more local. Maybe E. F. Schumacher had a point when he said Small is Beautiful.
Previously I would work in one place, worship in another, eat in another, see family in another. It’s far from ideal but it reinforces to me quite how sprawling modern life, before the virus, was. It reminded me of this illustration by the architect Leon Krier:
I think everyone can relate to some aspect of this but a justifiable critique is that whilst we are much more geographically grounded this is largely down to the ability of the internet to abstract ourselves. So instead of our hands being in one place and our eyes another they are both increasingly ephemeral. Yet isn’t this what the internet always promised to do? For years we lived with the promise that where you live and work could be in places previously impossible prior to the internet. It took a virus to force those promises to come true. I appreciate not everyone can do this in their work but there is a part of me genuinely excited by the changes this could have to people’s work in the long term.
The people I work with, once all being based in London, are now spread all over the country. Some, like me, remain in London and some have fled to family in places like Suffolk and Glasgow. The question of “should I stay or should I go” has been something I’ve thought about a lot.
- My flat is small, my relatives have more space. Particularly for my son to move around in.
- London is probably going to be the worst hit by the virus as things get worse. Me, my wife, and my son are more likely to catch the virus by remaining here.
- My wife, my son, and I could have the virus already and by moving we might unwittingly spread it to older relatives.
- I have an obligation to my neighbours and members of my church, some of whom who have caught the virus, to minister to them.
In thinking about this the Davenant Institute republished a letter of Martin Luther on what to do in the event of a plague. He wrote:
It would be well, where there is such an efficient government in cities and states, to maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there—as was the intent and purpose of our forefathers with so many pious bequests, hospices, hospitals, and infirmaries so that it should not be necessary for every citizen to maintain a hospital in his own home. That would indeed be a fine, commendable, and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer generous help and contributions, particularly the government. Where there are no such institutions—and they exist in only a few [Vol. 43, Page 127] places—we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another in any extremity or risk the loss of salvation and the grace of God. Thus it is written in God’s word and command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in Matthew 7 [:12], “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”
Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another. First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love—our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor. I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh. Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner as St. John teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” [I John 3:16].Martin Luther, Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague, Luther’s Works vol. 43
Some might disagree with Luther here, but even before I read this I was of the view espoused here. We’ve been getting supplies for our sick congregants and I’ve personally signed up for the Red Cross Community Reserves if things get really bad. I believe we called to bloom where we are planted, context matters, and I am assured of my hope and salvation so have no real concerns about what might happen to me. I did, early on, ask my wife to take my son to her parents in the Midlands but she wants to stay here with me because this could be ongoing for months and believes as I do about ministering to our elderly and vulnerable neighbours and those in our church. Some of these people don’t know Christ, and they really need to in the coming weeks and months. This place was always a mission-field, but it really has become one now.
When I was writing my series on the growth of the cult of the saints I came across this quote from Dionysius the Great written on how Christians acted in the midst of plague during the 3rd century:
And they took the bodies of the saints on their upturned hands, and on their bosoms, and closed their eyes, and shut their mouths. And carrying them in company, and laying them out decently, they clung to them, and embraced them, and prepared them duly with washing and with attire. And then in a little while after they had the same services done for themselves, as those who survived were ever following those who departed before them. But among the heathen all was the very reverse. For they thrust aside any who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died, steadily avoiding any kind of communication and intercourse with death; which, however, it was not easy for them altogether to escape, in spite of the many precautions they employed.Epistles of Dionysius the Great, Epistle 12. To the Alexandrians
I do not think we should be reckless, Martin Luther says as much in his letter, but if we are so confident of our salvation should we abandon those who are not during this time? We are thankful to live in an age where we know so much more about the spread of these things and live in a societies with good infrastructure, but I think the proper response for a Christian, if they can, is to not endanger others and help where we can. Especially those brothers and sisters in need.
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God2 Timothy 1:7, 8 NKJV
I must confess, however, that I have found not being able to attend church rather difficult. I understand why and have come to realise the onus this places on me to ensure the spiritual life of the family is maintained during this period. As mentioned the vicar streams a service weekly, he also streams morning prayer each morning. John Bunyan wrote on family prayer:
As touching the spiritual state of his family; he should be very diligent and circumspect, doing his utmost endeavour both to increase faith where it is begun, and to begin it where it is not. For this reason, he should diligently and frequently lay before his household such things of God, out of his word, as are suitable for each particular. And let no man question his rule in the word of God for such a practice; for if the thing itself were but of good report, and a thing tending to civil honesty, it is within the compass and bounds even of nature itself, and should be done; much more things of a higher nature; besides, the apostle exhorts us to ‘Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, pure, lovely, and of good report, to think of them,’ that is, to be mindful to do them (Phil 4:8). But to be conversant in this godly exercise in our family, is very worthy of praise, and is very fitting to all Christians. This is one of the things for which God so highly commended his servant Abraham, and that with which his heart was so much affected by. I know Abraham, says God, ‘I know him’ to be a good man indeed, for ‘he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord’ (Gen 18:19). This was a thing also which good Joshua designed should be his practice as long as he had a breathing time in this world. ‘As for me,’ says he, I ‘and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Josh 24:15).
Further, we find also in the New Testament, that they are looked upon as Christians of an inferior rank that have not a due regard to this duty; yes, so inferior as not fit to be chosen to any office in the church of God. A [bishop or] pastor must be one that rules well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God? ‘The deacon’ also, says he, must ‘be the husband of one wife, ruling their children, and their own house well’ (1 Tim 3). Notice, the apostle seems to lay down this much, that a man that governs his family well, has one qualification belonging to a pastor or deacon in the house of God, for he that knows not how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God? This, considered, gives us light into the work of the master of a family, touching the governing of his house.Family Duty, John Bunyan, The Stromata
Yet I’ve been doing what I can to encourage family prayer, sung worship, and opening scripture with one another. I found a recent video by Francis Chan on this really challenging and encouraging:
What I find so powerful about Francis Chan is saying is to remind us that we have immediate, unmediated, access to the Father himself through Christ. By being in Christ wherever two or three are gathered there is the Church. We are united, mystically, to all believers everywhere through the Holy Spirit, so even when we can’t meet together we are together. I find that a source of real comfort during these times. I can be alone with the creator of the universe, my family can come before the throne of grace during this time by the power of his holy spirit.
The other, really challenging thing, Francis Chan says is that in taking communion Christ is present. Now Chan has this really interesting mix of a low church ecclesiology and a classical belief in the real presence of Christ in communion (as all the Reformers did sans Zwingli) but I don’t know how comfortable I would feel taking communion at home coming from an Anglican background. This isn’t because I believe in the hocus pocus or Hoc est enim corpus meum of Roman Catholic transubstantiation and the special charisma of priests to administer it but rather, despite us being a universal priesthood, that we should maintain good order in the Church. James Ussher writes, with regard to confession, that the role of the minister when it comes to confession is:
Here are we to understand that the ministers of Christ, by applying the word of God unto the consciences of men, both in public and in private, do discharge that part of their function which concerneth forgiveness of sins, partly operatively, partly declaratively.
Operatively, inasmuch as God is pleased to use their preaching of the Gospel as a means of conferring (Acts 10:44; Galatians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 3:6) his Spirit upon the sons of men, of begetting them in Christ, and of working faith and repentance in them; whereby the remission of sins is obtained.James Ussher, Answers to a Jesuit: Chapter 5. The Priest’s Power to Forgive Sins. The Stromata
The minister’s role is to apply the word of God, as in baptism the work is God’s rather than man’s. In a like manner, I don’t believe a priest can bless the elements through a screen on live stream nor anything like that, again context matters and I believe the change occurs within the person rather than the elements (Richard Hooker: “the soul of man is the receptacle of Christ’s presence” (Laws 5.67.2)). Yet what Chan is talking about I find so powerful, and I must admit compelling. It has made me wonder what I think about communion, especially in isolation. My general view, in short, is that we should be willing to wait till this is all over. Yet Archbishop James Ussher, in his writings on the Real Presence, quoted Origen saying:
“We are said to drink the blood of Christ,” saith Origen, “not only by way of the Sacraments but also when we receive his word, wherein consisteth life; even as he himself saith: The words which I have spoken are spirit and life.”Origen, on Numbers, Chapter 24, Homily 16, Quoted in James Ussher, Answers to a Jesuit: Chapter 3. Of The Real Presence. The Stromata
And Eusebius saying:
“Do not think that I speak of that flesh wherewith I am compassed as if you must eat of that; neither imagine that I command you to drink my sensible and bodily blood: but understand well, that the words which I have spoken unto you are spirit and life. So that those very words and speeches of his are his flesh and blood, whereof who is partaker, being always therewith nourished as it were with heavenly bread, shall likewise be made partaker of heavenly life. Therefore let not that offend you, saith he, which I have spoken of the eating of my flesh and of the drinking of my blood; neither let the superficial hearing of those things which were said by me of flesh and blood trouble you. For these things, sensibly heard, profit nothing; but the spirit is it which quickeneth them that are able to hear spiritually.”Eusebius, Against Marcellus and on Ecclesiastical Theology, Book 3, Quoted in James Ussher, Answers to a Jesuit: Chapter 3. Of The Real Presence. The Stromata
This is to say that we can receive the same grace of communion through the hearing of the word. That our believing in the word that allows us to partake of Christ in communion is sufficient in those times we cannot take communion. Bishop John Jewel, on this, quotes Jerome saying:
S. Jerome therefore saith : Quando audimus sermonem domini, caro Christi, & sanguis eius in aures nostras infunditur : “When we hear the word of God, the flesh of Christ, and his blood is poured into our ears.”Jerome, Quoted in Psalm 147, Quoted in John Jewel, a Treatise on the Sacraments Gathered Out of Certain Sermons
I wish I could be with the body united, I wish I could take communion (Does Francis Chan have a higher or lower view of communion than me? I don’t know), but I have everything I need as I am. Immediate access to the Father by Christ the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. What do I have to fear in this time? God is with us. Things aren’t ideal but I do believe God is working through this time and its the responsibility of all of us to preach the word in season and out of season, whoever we find ourselves interacting with during this time.
I must be honest and say the last few weeks in lockdown have been a real blessing for me. It took, and is taking, some adjustment. I am not ignorant or downplaying the very real danger we are in both as individuals and as a society. Yet my family life has taken on a quasi-monastic quality. My wife has recently been reading Ron Rolheiser’s book The Domestic Monastery before this all kicked off, I’m yet to read it but we’ve talked a lot about it. In an entry he published on his site, going by the same title of the book, he writes:
What is a monastery? A monastery is not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a place set apart (period). It is also a place to learn the value of powerlessness and a place to learn that time is not ours, but God’s.
Our home and our duties can, just like a monastery, teach us those things. John of the Cross once described the inner essence of monasticism in these words: “But they, O my God and my life, will see and experience your mild touch, who withdraw from the world and become mild, bringing the mild into harmony with the mild, thus enabling themselves to experience and enjoy you.” What John suggests here is that two elements make for a monastery: withdrawal from the world and bringing oneself into harmony with the mild.
Although he was speaking about the vocation of monastic monks and nuns, who physically withdraw from the world, the principle is equally valid for those of us who cannot go off to monasteries and become monks and nuns. Certain vocations offer the same kind of opportunity for contemplation. They too provide a desert for reflection.Ron Rolheiser, The Domestic Monastary, ronrolheiser.com
We should all be using this period for reflection. To focus on those things which matter the most, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the words of that anchoress Julian of Norwich who wrote:
Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’Julian of Norwich, Showings. Showing 13
As Christ himself reminds us:
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.John 16:33