by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
A few weeks ago I broke a tooth. It was a big molar that had done great work for me for well over fifty years, and I broke it by biting a potato crisp. I didn’t bite hard, and there wasn’t a stone in the crisp. According to the dentist, the edge of the crisp had simply impacted on a thin crack, a fault-line in the tooth, as any crisp could have done for decades. All the fault-line needed was a piece of food in the wrong place at the wrong time – and I now have a broken tooth, and of course no immediate prospect of a filling.
The Coronavirus has more in common with a mouthful of broken glass than with a Salt and Vinegar crinkle. And it is impacting on all our personal and institutional lives at once. But the principle is the same; ways of being and living that have done us well for decades and centuries are suddenly under impact, and if there are fault-lines some of them will break, with no immediate prospect of a filling.
That’s where we are across the world; biting down on the hard thing, and finding what breaks. In a similar image the writer to Hebrews speaks of things that can be shaken “that is, created things” – and things that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:26ff). What is God saying to us about this as we are shaken today, as the fault-lines are tested in our lives as a society and as a Church? What from the past is indeed essential to us? What treasured ways of living will prove in the end to be utterly peripheral? And the constant, overarching question: how do we build a future that nourishes the human family as a whole?
All this was doubtless in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mind when he meditated on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and from his meditation produced his Easter sermon, in which he said this:
“Yet in the resurrection of Jesus, God lights a fire which calls us to justice, to live in humble generosity, to transform our societies. After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS, so much effort, once this epidemic is conquered here and round the world, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal. There needs to be a resurrection of our common life, something that links to the old, but is different and more beautiful.”
In this unfolding Via Media series a range of people will be offering their sense of what that resurrection of our common life should be. For now as I reflect on my own response, two things come to the fore. The first is a basket of possibilities, and the second is the sense, which I need constantly to remember, that these are early days.
The basket of possibilities in my mind reminds me that I am a child of my time, a time which is passing. Nonetheless I know what I long to see. In values and feelings I long to see inequality broken, inclusion honoured and promoted, faith respected, diversity affirmed, love and joy celebrated and defended wherever it is truly found. In practical politics I long to see Universal Credit paused and repaired, a Universal Basic Income explored and properly trialled, austerity finally halted and rejected, the future of the planet finally treasured and preserved. In the Church I long to see doctrinal harshness reduced, love celebrated, quiet service honoured, worship and prayer restored, people fed, the lonely loved, the dying supported.
I continue to long for these things among so many more, and I commit myself to work to see them come. I will advocate for them and I hope for the courage and grace to oppose all that stands in their way.
Alongside this I must remember that in the new world, the world of the Coronavirus, these are early days. I rejoice that the testing of fault-lines has meant that some parts of my basket of possibilities may finally be affirmed and implemented, and I lament that other parts will struggle to prevail, especially in the face of corporate anxiety, institutional inequality, the desire to go back to a safe and unchanging past, the rush to give people certainties which may not help them in the end, when so much that seemed strong has already been shattered by the impact of the virus.
These are early days, and no one knows the answers to questions that the virus compels us to ask; questions the modern world has not had to ask before. Will I then have the patience and humility, whatever my basket of possibilities may contain, to refrain from closing down conversations too soon?
If we are to bring good out of the impact of evil, then we need a discipline; to sit patiently with uncertainty even though uncertainty makes us anxious. The poet John Keats famously explored this discipline in a letter, written of course in the language of his time:
“ …at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
I hope we will be capable of that, and that we will not hurt one another in our haste. These are frightening days, but they are also early days. “We cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal”; no indeed. Instead we must explore a new future for the world, and for the Church within the world, each one advocating for what matters most, but each one also listening hard before arriving at conclusions. That at any rate is my own commitment, as I seek to put the Archbishop’s words into action, and to work with others to discover a future that will surprise us all.