Heading into this New Year, life ought to be feeling better, as restrictions ease and the days lengthen, but if the truth be told, things feel odd. It’s hard to put your finger on it. There is a mood, an inertia, a stasis, that I cannot quite pin down. If this is the return to real, normal life, what is it that we are missing? How have we been affected by the storm we have endured these last two years? (Indeed, is it actually over yet?) It’s hard to say, but while our focus has been on infection rates and vaccination statistics, several things seem to have had a bigger effect than we realise.
Let me say that I have come through this so far without catching Covid. I am triple-jabbed and thankful for the protection that the vaccines have given me. I have not endured the experience of some, and I know only too well as a pastor that Covid has been a dreadful experience for many millions who have caught the virus and then suffered horrendous complications. I am so thankful for all in our caring professions, for the brilliant work they have done under inexorable pressure.
My concern here is to discuss the collateral damage to the wider culture in the wake of the pandemic. As we bump along in the backwash of Covid, it is time to look at how it has distorted our culture, and how that distortion may never come back into shape. Here are a few things that I am starting to notice, almost as though they are now permanent fixtures in our changed culture:
1. Distance. Two years ago it felt rude to avoid people on the street and give them a wide berth. If you hung back in the supermarket queue, you were implying that the person in front had an odour problem. Now we all keep our two metres, even when we don’t have to (unless you are on the London tube), and it is normal for us to sit in church with the seats spread out. As a pastor, I have tried to visit people where I can, by going for a walk together, or having brave souls round to lunch in a much-ventilated conservatory. However, the normal pastor’s offer ‘Can I come round one evening?’ feels unusual, and growing connection with people is going to take longer than we thought.
2. Facelessness. Matthew Mason has written a brilliant piece on this subject, ‘With unveiled faces’, surveying the rich theme of the face in Scripture, and the way that masks have distorted our social interaction. He says, ‘when we are confronted by a human body with a masked face, we encounter a person only in an attenuated sense. In the absence of a countenance, a personal encounter is all but impossible. In spending months behind masks in public, persons have been defaced and our communities therefore effaced.’ I believe he is right. When infection rates were high, and the virus was potent and life-threatening for some, masks were an understandable limitation on our daily lives that cost little. I hope they worked, but I have my doubts. They came with a huge social cost. Human beings have been made with faces that can convey dozens of different expressions. Have you ever sat in a train or an airport departure lounge and watched the faces around you? Faces filled with excitement, romance, fear or boredom; older faces etched with experience, younger faces filled with beauty. As a preacher I ache to see a response in the faces to which I preach, to feel a connection, to see more than an eyebrow, but masks have made preaching feel sterile. Because we do not show our faces, we do not bear our souls, and our shared experience of singing God’s praise is a muffled, uncertain sound, challenged by hyperventilation. Even when we see our faces unmasked on Zoom, the lens distorts, the broadband flickers, there is no close eye-contact, and the subtle intuitions that can be conveyed in a human glance, expressed through all forty-two muscles of the face, are the most muted part of the encounter, a strange grey apology for real communion with one another.
3. Newsgloom. Broadcast news is gloomy at the best of times, but the past two years have deepened that significantly. We hear the daily case and death statistics, and the general tone is solemn and brooding. One friend says he limits himself to one news bulletin a day because it is so depressing. We have become a culture so sad, and so determined to show the virtue of its sadness to anyone who might dare to be happy about something, that we have forgotten how to smile. Newsgloom smothers us like a fire-blanket, ready to stifle anyone who dares to be cheerful.
4. Boredom. Those who came home alive from World War Two often found the routines of daily life boring and hard to adjust to. They had endured unspeakable drama, and life would always be dull by comparison. The early days of the pandemic had that sense of drama, of strangeness and a sense of public cohesion. Great things were done together, and there was a supreme public effort. Now that has dissipated. We have become used to being at home, working from home, and following the same routines that were learned early on in lockdown. We have become compliant. That makes us boring to others and bored with ourselves. Admittedly, two months before lockdown I left a job that had taken me all over the country and all over the world, and we settled in a new housing estate, so for me it may be more pronounced. Yet so much still seems to be on hold, and that brings a boredom that crushes the soul.
5. Creative stasis. I find that two years of Covid restrictions have stifled my creativity. I can’t prove this, of course. Any of us can get a creative block at the best of times, but look at the date of my previous blog post! I know some people have written novels while furloughed, and some great new hymns have emerged, but I find the combination of factors just leaves me mentally gridlocked. With all the extra technology, life just seems to take longer and have less soul. Maybe I always found my inspiration by sitting on a train. It gave me a wider context and space to think, which seems to be lacking. It’s also hard to show initiative when you can’t plan long-term, because who knows what the next wave will bring? We made some plans for the summer in our church members’ meeting, but you don’t want to be too ambitious or nail things down in detail if it all gets thrown in the bin by a new variant.
6. Bigstate. The Government put tough limits on our civil liberties, as we would have expected in a war, and how could we disagree? While some restrictions have eased, I still feel queasy about reporting every flow test into a system that knows me, and knows so much about me, and will supply me with many more tests for free. At the same time, people have come to expect more from the state – a furlough scheme should things ever get bad again, and grant aid and rate relief for every failing business. We found the magic money tree without Jeremy Corbyn’s help, and it keeps on printing more. The state has changed in the last two years, but I don’t think we have noticed, or have any idea about how to stop the juggernaut.
7. Fear. Our social discourse is now shot through with an Orwellian fear. Radio adverts assault us with emotional stories about Covid to urge us to get vaccinated, as though none of us have. The word ‘variant’ has been loaded with a doomsday tone that tells us any such variant will probably be worse. Labelling Omicron with a Greek letter most people did not know gave it a menace it did not possess. While the journalists quietly admitted that it might be less severe, they piled on the agony by telling us ‘it was too soon to say.’ Still each day the deaths are tolled, masking (forgive me) the fact that every day people die of many things, and every year half a million die in Britain. If you cease to believe in God and eternal life, this life is all you have, and death means the destruction of the future. We are living in a culture of fear without hope.
8. Extremism. I used to think that conspiracy theorists limited themselves to the death of JFK, 9/11, and the ‘fake’ moon landings, almost as a marginal hobby. You could buy the books in The Works when they were remaindered for £2. It was all tosh. I am staggered that people I have met can actually take these theories seriously, even to the point of raiding Covid testing stations, marching down Whitehall, and publishing their own newspaper. Someone I met on street outreach tried to convince me that we were living in a glass dome somewhat like the Truman show, that the Queen is dead, and Trump is the Messiah. She made predictions about Trump’s imminent return that would make a Jehovah’s Witness blush. We have to try and understand what makes people believe such nonsense in a post-truth world, and teach people to think for themselves and recover their critical faculties. But it is not just that end of the spectrum. The other extreme, the ardent lockdowners, are just as dedicated to their cause. In Western Australia, on 23 Jan the State Premier Mark McGowen announced 23 cases of Covid, with no hospitalisations. He published the stats on Twitter and people replied, pleading for a lockdown. ‘Please Mark lock us down for 2 weeks just to be safe. Protect us for (sic) this horrible disease. People are going to die in fear if you don’t.’ As David Robertson pointed out, this is Stockholm Syndrome. The public discourse has become afraid of both extremes, and it is increasingly hard for the middle ground to be heard.
If this is the backwash of Covid, how can we live differently in such tormented times? Christian churches are called to be a ‘colony of heaven’ settled within a world that lives very differently. In so many ways, the shared life of a church should be tangibly different, and refreshingly so. We should be a place of community and belonging, not distance and distrust. We should be a place where people come to express their souls together, because to sing God’s praise is a transforming experience, the discovery of our true destiny and fulfilment in worshipping him. At the heart of a church’s life should be the gospel – good news! The great antidote to Newsgloom is the idea that a benign and gracious God is in sovereign control of history, and his purposes have not run out of road. Gospel churches gather to tell his story, for history is in his hands. We gather to remove the inner masks of the soul, to be our true selves, accepted by God in Christ and on the basis of all he has done for us, so that we can leave religious pretence behind. We do not buy into the fear narrative that prevails, because we know the God who is above all the things that we fear. Rather, we are people of hope and the future. A vital part of the Christian faith is the bright, eternal hope towards which we are travelling through life. Old age becomes, not the twilight zone of nostalgia and fading memory, but the bright approaching future of heaven and eternal life. The Christian church hasn’t changed as a result of Covid. What we believe, the great truths that make us who we are, and the ways that we should live together and serve others, are just as they were two years ago. Covid has changed the world around us, and in those changes the local church has become the startling contrast that the world is looking for, the aroma of heaven that people so badly need.