Something to think about

Reflection on Covid-19 (21/5/20)

Rowan Williams to Synod 23/11/10

A reflection on the Covid-19: at the request of the Tang Foundation 21/5/20

In Spanish:

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Not being a medical expert or an epidemiologist, I will not write about the illness and the struggle to mitigate or overcome it; my reflections are those of one of the many lay people, who are shocked amid the devastation of so many lives, and the staggering changes in most aspects of life which, in many countries, everyone has had to get used to. The pandemic inflicts suffering and deprivations. It also undermines confidence in the future, frustrating hopes and plans, leaving us confused and disoriented. There are, however, also encouraging changes, often accelerating processes that were in train before the pandemic. One I particularly welcome is the introduction by the National Health Service in England of video visits with one’s doctor. Like all innovations it can be used badly, but it can also improve the ability of doctors to help their patients. Perhaps more important than specific innovations is the way people have come together to help their communities to cope with the pandemic. Along with the spirited social mobilization and increased mutual concern, is the realization, even among some former skeptics, of the importance of leadership and government to give direction to the public response to the illness, and its debilitating effects. Unfortunately, the pandemic also created more opportunities for arbitrary political power; a painful example is the denial of women’s ability to obtain abortions or to use fertility clinics. No less depressing has been the increase in domestic abuse, and the growing manifestations of racial and ethnic prejudices, of chauvinism and intolerance.

Would a post-pandemic time see a return to life as we knew it or will the profound trauma we are undergoing now change life in far-reaching ways? I tend to think that the changes will be considerable, and the longer the pandemic lasts the greater they will be. New ways of doing things, some adopted because people think that they improve on the old ways, and many adopted as worse, but necessary to cope with the pandemic, will take root. The cost of abandoning them will be great, and for many people who have got used to them, they are, as we say, the new normal. To give one possible example: corporations employing thousands of office workers may discover enormous savings made when their employees work from home. New ways of using offices to keep workers interacting personally and functioning as teams will be devised, perhaps bringing everyone to the office once week, and a struggle will begin to improve the conditions of working from home. A considerable impact on public transport and road traffic, on the cost of both commercial premises and residential accommodation will ensue, possibly shifting more urban services and facilities away from the centre, etc. My point is that the changes need not be planned, they are more likely to emerge as people make the best they can of the conditions forced on them.

Will the changes bring improvements or aggravate the ills of societies? Impossible to know, but there is reason to think that to find our orientation in the changed conditions our very criteria for judging social practices will have to change. A few comments on three issues can illustrate the point.

1) Globalization, meaning here close manufacturing and trading ties, extensive cultural exchanges and interlinked news media, made the pandemic possible, and is crucial to its suppression. Recent months saw efforts to extend and cement international co-operation. They also saw an explosion of chauvinism and festering hostility, often based on invented conspiracy theories, spread by leaders eager to escape responsibility by casting blame on other countries, and striving to increase their influence worldwide by undermining international co-operation. It is likely that the current popularity of isolationism will be both short-lived and yet deeply influential. Given the many ways in which events in one part of the globe affect people in faraway countries, the incentives to influence events beyond ones borders, inconsistent with isolationism, would be powerful. The most effective way of doing so is through negotiated agreements, involving give and take by all, that is by co-operation. Pre-pandemic international practices and institutions were unstable and led to many undesirable consequences, because they tended to enhance the power of some countries, or sections within them, in ways which compromised the ability of others to meld co-operation with respect for the local cultures, and the local traditions of fostering civic loyalty and co-existence. That is why the pandemic-fostered isolationism may yield new forms of co-operation which are more respectful of the plurality of cultural traditions across the world and, may integrate them in the international arrangements rather than suppress them. Paradoxically, the growth of isolationism in the US, and its retreat from its alleged role of world leadership may, if we are lucky, facilitate experiments in finding a new balance between autonomy and co-operation in the international field (and introduce higher standards of human and environmental welfare and climate control). The US may not wish to see that happening, and China may be drawn to a cold war against the US. To secure a more stable and just global co-operation much depends on the resolve of the rest of the world.

2) When we think of personal liberties and the struggle against discrimination we may be impressed by the enormous advances in parts of the globe, in the condition of women, and of various disadvantaged groups. These struggles continue and have a long way to go. But various personal liberties such as privacy, freedom of expression and related liberties, have long been in retreat; and for many causes, not least of them being the struggle against terrorism, money laundering and cybercrime. The pandemic is contributing to the erosion of these liberties, perhaps especially, though not only, due to the importance of test-and-track for limiting infections. Reactions to the retreats vary, but many people welcome them, not always realizing their true scope or nature. After all they are due to the pursuit of worthy causes. The elementary truth that liberties are not free, that we have to pay a price to have them, is no longer that obvious to most people. The result is conflict between the rhetoric of freedom at all costs and the reality of a decreasing willingness to run risks of harm or injury, from terrorists, criminals or viruses, as the price for enjoying those liberties. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the pandemic, public culture will face up more honestly to this conflict, and will adopt a more sustainable course regarding the price of liberties, taking on board their importance for the opportunities of having a rewarding life as well as the way a blind worship of liberty at any price compromises the possibility of having such a life. We may also realize that while there are many unsustainable answers to the quest for the right price to pay for these liberties, there is no single right answer, and different traditions may have conflicting but acceptable ways to answer the question.

3) There is another conflict hidden in many popular views, a conflict between belief in democracy as the only legitimate form of government and belief in the importance of basing policy on sound science. Repeating the mantra that science provides knowledge about the consequences of various policies, but democratically anointed politicians must choose between them, and bear the responsibility for their choices, while not entirely false is not at all helpful. It ignores the fact, highlighted in recent controversies about responses to the pandemic, that science is served to us in the hands of scientists who are not only affected by general politics, but also by the internal politics of scientific life. It also fails to provide any guidance about the way science should guide policy choices, and the institutional structures which should enable it to do so. Perhaps there should be certain domains regarding which some scientific institutions should take the decisions, guided by a loose framework of policies determined by democratic institutions – in a way analogous to the way in some countries the central bank is autonomous in its decisions, subject to a definition of its general goals, determined by democratic institutions. Given the large array of issues on which science has something to say, and the enormously varied political cultures of different countries, there are many ways the question should be answered, and various institutional arrangements should be tried in the hope of reconciling knowledge based politics with democratic oversight. We can only hope that the way the pandemic has forced us to face these issues will encourage a more balance and enlightened rethinking of the political cultures and institutions in which we live.

From Dr. Rowan Williams Presidential Address to Synod 23/11/2010:

John Wesley began his great sermon on 'The Catholic Spirit' with a text from II Kings 10.15: 'He greeted him and said, "Is your heart true to mine, as my heart is to yours?" Jehonadab replied, "Yes." "If so," Jehu said, "Give me your hand."' As so often with wonderful texts from Scripture, the context makes you scratch your head a little (look it up). But – as I suspect all serious readers of Scripture would agree – one of the striking things about scriptural texts is that they grow beyond their context in the light of the Spirit's work of interpretation. And Jehu's question is one that we should hear the Holy Spirit putting to us every time we meet as a Synod. Because our hope must be that the loyalty of heart to heart in Christian community will constantly enable us to join hands in the work set before us for the sake of the Gospel.

…. John Wesley in the same sermon is painfully realistic about the fact that we 'cannot all think alike, and in consequence...cannot all walk alike.' The greatness of this particular sermon of his is to challenge us to recognise that what he calls the Catholic Spirit is neither a climate of imposed universal agreement nor a free for all held together by mutual tolerance ('Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding'). Wesley wants us to be settled in the basics of our faith, 'fixed as the sun' in our allegiance to the creed and the doctrine of a free and God-given atonement for sin. But this is consistent with two things that might strike us as unexpected in their context. First, it is consistent with readiness to hear arguments against what we believe without panic; and second it is consistent with acknowledging that opinions vary even where doctrines are shared. And how do we know that something is an opinion not a doctrine? An opinion is something 'compatible with a love to Christ and a work of grace', he writes in a letter; something which visibly grows out of the basic commitment to a divine Saviour, yet which can be denied without undermining that commitment. As he writes to a nephew who had embraced Roman Catholicism, what we need in our discussion is a fierce eagerness to clarify and explore the unfathomable wonders of what it is to be an adopted child of God through the Holy Spirit; and if we then have any energy left or nothing better to do, then, he says, we can argue about purgatory or whatever.

… We are going to be discussing the language of the Big Society in this group of sessions. And if such language means anything – as I believe it does – it looks to an ideal that Wesley would have recognised easily: men and women determined to enhance each others' lives by building up their freedom to shape their future and their communal life with fairness and generosity; people for whom responsibility is not a grim and repressive word but a joyful acknowledgement of what we owe to each other. This will of course be in many areas a task to share with our friends of other denominations and other faiths; and I am specially glad to be able to welcome the representatives of other communities of faith here today as guests and observers along with our ecumenical friends. But that should not take away from the fact that, if we are going to be both positive and critical partners in this process, we need some of that 'settledness' Wesley speaks of; some degree of freedom from the clash of opinion that will enable us to join hands.

And it may help us too to be reminded that the Church's growth has always been in some ways haphazard and diverse. God gives increase in unexpected places – and, by his grace, such growth is already going on in unexpected places in our Church, both in 'inherited' forms of Church life and in Fresh Expressions. For God's sake, don't let us waste time and energy talking or behaving as if there were competition going on here. The truth is that this diversity offers an opportunity for exactly the shared exploring of our common gift that Wesley writes about. 'In both ways, whether with false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and for that I am happy', says St Paul (Phil.1.18). And there is another text that we might well hang on our walls for the coming quinquennium.

You see, what I should really love to see in this Synod is all of us disappointing expectations. What plenty of people expect – people in the media, people in the pews, perhaps even some of us – is that a Synod elected in the middle of several tough political rows in the church is going to be a body consistently pulled away from the hope of joined hands, let alone joined-up thinking, a body in which the Catholic Spirit is invisible. So I am urging you to surprise those who are looking on, to surprise them by your loyalty to each other: 'Is your heart true to mine?' That loyalty grows and flourishes when we spend time together exploring what has brought us together; which is God. It happens when we pledge ourselves to seek out those we disagree with and work till it hurts on finding ways of sharing prayer and fellowship with them in and around the life of the Synod. It may mean something as trivial as not always sitting with your friends and allies, or something as long term as a prayer partnership. If our hearts are true to each other, different things become possible; and I think there is a certain urgency about getting this right at the very beginning of the life of a Synod.

Part of what that means too is (remembering Wesley yet again) the willingness to hear the arguments. I don't think I'm alone in feeling some anxiety about the degree to which strongly-worded exchanges outside this Synod, and the zero-sum atmosphere of campaigning and pamphleteering, can feed a climate in which people are almost expected to arrive in Synod with minds made up on everything, even with a feeling of party lines being defined and voting 'packages' created. I don't think we are doing the job for which God has called us here if we reproduce the worst aspects of secular partisanship. It ought to be possible for us to arrive here ready to discover something, rather than simply determined to win.

And that requires us also to be ready to look at how we 'do' Synod. For all the enthusiasm of many members, there is also a widespread unease about some aspects of our practice, an unease shared by a lot of people in our Church. It has something to do with the way in which a packed legislative programme leaves us less time than we need to think together, to do theology together. And the effect of that is to reinforce the tribal tendencies that always recur in bodies like this. When I hear people saying after a debate, 'That was Synod at its best', it is usually after a session in which people have spoken out of their experience and expertise, when we have not felt driven towards closure on a matter we need to approach reflectively, when there has been a manifest willingness to learn on all sides. Happily there are a good many such moments. But we could do with more, and I hope that in this quinquennium we continue to look at ways of relaxing our rhythms a bit to allow more of this. …

Those like myself who believe women bishops to be a development both good and timely for the Church and wholly consistent with its mainstream understanding of ministry and sacraments should be ready to make the argument in the strong theological terms in which it can be made. And those who do not share these convictions have both the right and the responsibility to articulate the theology of the Church and its authority which makes them hesitate, because listening to these points is a necessary part of the whole body's discernment.

… The need for some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions is getting more urgent, because I sense that in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much. It is unthinkingly treated by some as almost the sole test of biblical fidelity or doctrinal orthodoxy; it is unthinkingly regarded by others as one of those matters on which the Church must be brought inexorably into line with what our culture can make sense of. Neither side always has the opportunity of clarifying how they see the focal theological issues – how one or the other position relates to our belief in a divine Saviour. And if we are not to be purely tribal about this, we need the chance for some sort of discussion that is not dominated by the need to make an instant decision or to react to developments and pressures elsewhere.

…. If you think that there is no respectable debate to be had, or if you think that the debate is entirely over, it is unlikely that there will be a useful exchange. But this means that our disagreement will too easily become just that familiar struggle to win leverage rather than to arrive at shared understanding. …

The question is how far we feel able to go in making our decisions in such a way as to keep the trust of our fellow-Anglicans in other contexts. If we decide that this is not the kind of relationship we want with other Anglicans, well and good. But it has consequences. ... Historic allegiances cannot be taken for granted. They will survive and develop only if we can build up durable and adult bonds of fellowship. ... The fact is that the mutual loyalty of the Communion needs work...

Back to Wesley. He knew quite well that in a world of theological confusion, political manoeuvring and historical memories, Christian divisions are going to happen and to persist, and he himself was quite clear why he thought Baptists and Calvinists seriously wrong and why he could not join them in visible unity until things had been sorted out (he thought Calvinism a grave problem in effective evangelisation). What he is concerned to safeguard is what he calls heart being true to heart. There may be divisions, old and new, and no Christian should be complacent about that or step back from the hard work of visible reconciliation. But there is a kind of mutual loyalty that allows mutual respect to underpin even these separations, the loyalty that comes from recognising in the other Christ's loyalty or faithfulness to them. I want to encourage this Synod as forcefully as I can to maintain this level of loyalty to each other – and to the whole Anglican family. … we are called on to be loyal in Christ's name to the whole society in which he has called us to serve. It is a society that finds trust difficult, a society in which there is a widespread sense that other people and institutions and classes cannot be relied on to be faithful to the common good. We have the extraordinary opportunity of showing what a faithful community might be, in which no-one is forgotten – that is our version of 'Big Society' language. But we shall be set free for this if our mutual faithfulness here in this part of Christ's Body that is the General Synod becomes a daily reality. 'Let all these things stand by,' says Wesley; 'we will talk of them.' But the question that cannot wait until we have 'talked of them' remains: and I end by quoting it as Wesley does in the language of the King James Bible, and repeating it as the agenda for this Synod's life and work: 'Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'

© Rowan Williams 2010