Having children has taught me that actions speak louder than words. Parents, save your breath: you can tell your children what you want, but they will ultimately follow your example.
This lockdown suggested the rule also applies to the Church. Once doors were closed it mattered not whether that decision came from Government or prelates, or if it was wise or foolish: the reputational damage was done. This was harsh on bishops, who were doing their best to assist the government, and on clergy who have been key workers. Regardless, the British public did not clap for the Church but for the supermarket staff and health workers. That image of closed doors is what we were judged on.
How could Christians respond better to future pandemics or spikes? St Paul suggests we might adopt theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Stronger faith might have helped us look beyond this world to the next. Let health services instruct people to wash hands. Let governments impose social distancing. Such matters are not the Church’s main business – yet it was often the message we seemed to be prioritising. How much better had we spoken words of living faith; preaching the Resurrection to a world troubled by its mortality! Or else prepared souls for salvation by finding ways of making the sacraments more readily available not less.
Hope might have encouraged us to resist the diabolical fear that quickly gripped our nation. Rudyard Kipling observed that to “keep your head when all around are losing theirs” is noble. Is it not also a Christian duty? Might we have helped counter the doom-laden propaganda by providing optimistic alternative? As the media ghoulishly paraded each death before us we could have highlighted the encouraging rates of recovery – 99 per cent have survived thus far! Above all, hope might have emphasised that from a Christian perspective, death is not, in fact, the worst thing that can happen. It can even be the best thing, at the end of a long life. Christian hope is capable of looking on a holy death and saying: “We must not be jealous; our time will come! Jesu mercy, Mary pray.”
Love might have led us to reflect on the example of saints who went out in time of cholera, plague and war, wilfully taking risks to show forth God’s love. These guiding lights, in their various generations, were led by supernatural courage not institutional guidelines. Now, in fairness, today’s Christians did well reaching out to the vulnerable. But might we have done more?
Medics inform me that, especially in early days, Covid sufferers arrived at hospital neglected because carers were often afraid to perform basic duties. Might Christians have taken the risks to show God’s love? And might we have been better equipped to take such risks had we swapped a reliance on secular risk assessments in favour of a fresh look at the Gospels?
Faith, hope, love; the greatest, we are told, is love; and it is shown less in words than by example. Let us pray that we all learn the lessons of recent months and emerge, next time, better prepared – individually and as a body – to witness to God’s love.