by the Ven Malcolm Chamberlain, Archdeacon of Sheffield & Rotherham and Member of General Synod
On Monday 4th May, six weeks into the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, The Guardian newspaper published an article by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett under the heading ‘Why coronavirus might just create a more equal society in Britain.’ In it they wrote about how the present crisis “has given rise to more neighbourliness, sociability and a desire to take care of each other.”
It would be a fascinating study, well beyond the scope of this blog post, to put that statement to the test. Perhaps even more fascinating to chart a journey from how we were as a nation to what we may have become. At a superficial level, I can’t be the only one to have noticed how the initial selfish stockpiling of loo-rolls and pasta soon gave way to wonderful acts of human kindness. Indeed, in the midst of much tragic loss and disturbing uncertainty, time and time again we’ve been reminded of the human capacity for great generosity.
I was particularly moved, for example, when, right at the beginning of the lockdown, the carers at Bridgedale House care home, not far from where I live in Sheffield, made the sacrificial decision to isolate with the residents in order to minimise the risk of transmitting the disease to those vulnerable people. For some this meant leaving behind partners and young children for several weeks, at a time when their lives were being affected too.
We’ve heard stories of people spending their time and money to shop for and deliver groceries to those unable to leave their homes; of generous donations to foodbanks at a time of unprecedented demand; of holiday cottage owners housing NHS and other frontline workers free of charge; of café and restaurant owners providing food and refreshments for essential workers at heavily discounted prices or even for free; and, of course, there was Captain Tom’s incredible 100th birthday walk. As a fan of David Bowie, I still wish the army had given him an honorary promotion, so we could have sung about ‘Major Tom’!
And I haven’t even mentioned the countless small, but no less significant, acts of generosity carried out by ordinary people day after day after day. If one positive effect of the Coronavirus pandemic is the much-needed reminder of the power of human generosity in overcoming adversity, we simply cannot go back to the self-obsessed ‘look after number one’ culture we have previously inhabited.
We are not lone islands, even if economic policy has at times seduced us to such self-centredness. We are co-members of the human race, lovingly created by the same God who calls us into relationship with our Creator and with one another. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the awful consequences of poverty, institutional racism and injustice, as evidence suggests that the virus has a more devastating impact on the poor and on BAME communities. More positively, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the benefits of cleaner air, with enforced travel restrictions reducing global carbon emissions by some 17%. We cannot go back.
But let’s be honest. We can go back and, sadly, we probably will.
When we eventually return to a new normality free from restrictions, it will be all too easy for us to forget that feeling of sharing in a common crisis, and return again to simply looking after number one. I’m writing this in the week that non-essential shops were allowed to open again, and was gobsmacked (not in a good way) by images of one such store where eager shoppers were literally wrestling with each other to get in the door as it opened – no thoughts of social distancing or, it seems, of anyone else’s needs. Faced with such images, it can seem as though nothing has really changed.
So how can we live differently? How might we emerge from the lockdown as more generous and caring people? And how might such generosity demonstrate our oneness both as members of the human race and, for those of us who might call ourselves ‘Christian’, as followers of Jesus Christ?
There may be a clue in the letters of the New Testament. As the Church began to spread across Asia Minor, St Paul regarded generously giving to meet the needs of others as a key sign of commitment to Christ and a powerful demonstration of unity. Tom Wright comments that, having realised just how poor the Jerusalem Church had become, Paul started to imagine “what an impact it would have if the churches of which Jerusalem had been so suspicious … were to band together and send real and lasting financial help.”
And so, Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthian church by explaining how they were to go about collecting gifts for their fellow believers in Jerusalem. And it wasn’t only the wealthy that gave generously. In chapter 8 of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul points to the example of the Macedonian Christians, who, by the grace of God, had been giving voluntarily out of their relative poverty, begging earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry. I love that! These materially poor followers of Jesus were literally begging for the chance to enjoy the privilege of giving!
As we potentially begin to slip back into old habits and power structures that advantage some over others, I wonder, do you, do I, regard generous giving as ‘a privilege’? Might we have more to learn from God about this essential mark of Christian discipleship. Whatever our financial means, however much spare time we have, whatever our gifts and abilities, might we have room to more fully reflect the generosity and abundance of the God who created us? Or what about our church or our diocese or our other networks – can we see ways of working together to better embody the kind of generosity that reflects our shared humanity?
If the coronavirus pandemic has caused us to live more generously and pursue the common good in the face of adversity, surely we cannot go back.
 Wright, Tom, Paul A Biography, SPCK: London, 2018, p257