by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, there has been widespread sorrow, fear and frustration. But there have also been many instances of love and kindness which have touched people’s hearts.
A recent item on the BBC news website contained two accounts from the COVID wards of Bradford Royal Infirmary.
The first was about a patient “marrying” his fiancée hours before he died. A nurse on the night shift had called in a chaplain after talking to the dying man’s partner, who was at his bedside, in full personal protective equipment. Though a legally recognised wedding was not possible, a moving ceremony as close to this as possible was held, with cake afterwards. “You just want to do your bit to treat people with dignity, to help them know that they are loved and cared for. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to help them celebrate their love,” the chaplain explained.
Meanwhile the ward manager was facing her own challenges. She had placed her little boy in the care of her mother, who was in a high-risk category. And, to protect them both, she moved out, taking on extra shifts to care for her often desperately ill patients. “His birthday was the hardest day – not being able to touch him. I saw him from the end of the garden,” she said. But her son “understands that mummy has to work to help the poorly people” and that she “could be carrying germs that might harm him and that he needs to stay with grandma to keep safe and well.”
Loving Intimacy and Family Life
Real-life stories of this kind touch a chord with many people because, I think, they tap into experiences (or at least aspirations) which are almost universal. Probably most have been, or would like to be, bound together in loving intimacy with someone special – being known and treasured in body, mind and spirit. Likewise, many know what it is like to grow through family life, with its shared joys, sorrows and opportunities for generosity and tenderness. Of course, close relationships can go wrong: the pandemic has sadly led to a spike in domestic violence and child abuse. Yet at best, intimacy and love can benefit those who experience it directly and spill over into care for others.
In the Bible and Christian spirituality, love can take many forms: from fellowship within a faith community to comradeship in the quest for justice, or from compassion and help for a neighbour in need to close friendship and committed life-partnership. COVID-19 has prompted many of us to appreciate not only the dedication of key workers and volunteers but also the importance of the personal ties which make us more vulnerable yet help to keep us going, practically and emotionally.
People vary and there are a few who are not called to be part of a couple or experience ‘family’ life (in the broadest of terms). Others experience partnership breakdown or loss, or unfortunately never get to meet another single person who is right for them. But, tragically, church leaders in the UK and elsewhere still often put energy into hindering, rather than nurturing, committed relationships if these involve physically intimate same-sex love.
A century or so ago, it was widely believed that such partnerships would always be shallow or damaging and that the Bible clearly ruled them out. It has become evident over the years that neither is true. Indeed, numerous theologians continue to make the case for acceptance, with which many churchgoers agree. Yet senior clergy or church elders have often avoided admitting this, so as not to upset people they think are important in their worshipping community.
Sometimes they have suggested friendship as an alternative. However, the lockdown has highlighted just how nurturing touch can be, along with the intimacy of sharing space and the joys and disciplines of life together. It is true that self-sacrifice may well at times be needed, as in the case of the ward manager and her young son, but this is always to protect those in need rather than appeasing the powerful. Jesus repeatedly demonstrated this himself in the Gospels.
Sadly, for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, building close friendships is that much harder. This is especially true if they have been taught from an early age to believe that their identity is at core shameful, and that their tenderest feelings and creativity fundamentally wrong. Hiding or continually apologising for one’s God-given self can get in the way of connecting with others and using one’s gifts to nurture them.
Many churches are indeed affirming at a local level. However, after the pandemic, Christian leaders may undermine the chances of sharing “good news” if they continue to give the impression that the Church is prejudiced against certain groups.
All Creation Interconnected
At the same time, the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted how the whole of humankind is interconnected and that we are part of a wider creation. For instance, it has become harder for society to ignore care home residents, disabled people in community settings and homeless people. At the same time, key workers – who are often low-paid or from ethnic minorities – have for once been seen as more than mere sources of labour, to be used and discarded.
Interdependence across the globe and reliance on the earth have become apparent. Trees, flowers and even household pets have all sustained people through their bleakest moments.
Recent events have highlighted the destructiveness of divisions and how environmental damage and war can make bad situations worse. If humanity is to survive and thrive, it is time to challenge the way the world is ordered – where wealth is hoarded or wasted while people starve and whilst power-games among leaders inflict suffering and death on millions.
Many Christian thinkers have addressed these issues, as have other scholars and activists who care about justice. But, again, our leaders have often played down such matters to avoid offending those with the most riches, power or status.
Relationships matter, from the most intimate and personal to the connections among all of humankind. If the churches fully recognise this, they will then be able to care and witness more effectively in the post-coronavirus world.