by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
In the middle of last week, when we’d been physically distancing for three or four days this message popped up in messenger:
‘This is a one time prayer request! I was asked to be part of a 1 million Lord’s Prayer chain to slow and stop Coronavirus. The idea is you pray and then pass the message to 8 other people. Let me know if you can’t, so we don’t break the chain. It took me 30 secs to do it. Thank you!’
Apart from the basic principle that I never respond well to anything that tells me not to break the chain, it does make me ask all sorts of questions about what we think praying is about. Is the proposition here that if a million people were to pray the Lord’s Prayer, God would decide to slow down and stop the corona virus? Is that really any different from doing a rain dance in a drought?
To be clear; Covid-19 is not malign. It is not evil. It just exists, and part of its nature is to spread and it is very successful at doing that. The cough that most people develop is ideally suited to getting the droplets passed on. You might want to argue that the conditions through which it emerged and transferred to humans had a moral dynamic to them, but it seems to me that to pray about a virus is no different to praying about a brick. That’s not prayer it’s superstition.
So it doesn’t make any sense either to talk about God ‘allowing’ this virus for some greater purpose. There is a natural human search for meaning in the face of threat. We tell stories because the idea of something being random is hard to live with, but to tell a story in which God is in a battle with a virus and eventually wins, is at best nonsense and at worst blasphemous. Do we really believe that God allows Covid-19 to kill some people but not others? If so, how does God choose – by how hard the relatives pray? Personally I’d go down the road “that shit happens” – don’t blame God (or the Devil for that matter).
Does this mean there is no point praying? Of course not!
There are many reasons why we need to pray. Most crucially because prayer is a breeding ground for love and compassion. It settles our hearts, allows us to off load our anxiety and expand our horizon beyond self-obsession to the people around us.
Which brings me to Common Grace.
At one level it is a tricky one because it goes hand in hand with predestination. However, painted with a broader brush it helps to talk about the extraordinary good that is in the heart of most people.
As a child I always wanted to know why, if Christians were supposed to love God and love their neighbour, many of the non-Christians I knew were good and loving people and many of the Christians I knew were mean and judgemental. The answer from my Dad, who was also my vicar, was that goodness from God is given to all humanity.
We have seen this rather gloriously over the past couple of weeks. Over 700,000 people volunteered to support the NHS. In every community there are schemes to ensure that no-one will be left without food or medicine. People are finding extraordinary ways of creating joyous and crazy ways of being community on-line. I’ve been very keen to encourage Christians to support local community ventures rather than set up alternative ‘holy’ versions.
There is a profound challenge in the new dispensation. It teases out what we mean by “gospel”. It reveals what really matters to your heart and soul. It invites us to put our faith into action beyond the institution and get behind Jesus’ very simple and clear mission statement: love God and love your neighbour.
So please stop twittering on about the church buildings being closed for a few weeks, or how valid your virtual communion is and, if you haven’t already done so, pick up the phone instead and have a chat with someone who is lonely. It might just be that this is our biggest mission opportunity ever. Instead of talking about the gospel we could actually be the gospel – no preaching, just loving.