After Covid – Michael D

President Michael D Higgins of Ireland is a most delightful man – cultured, intelligent and compassionate. Often known simply as ‘Michael D’ He is also a poet and, like most people in Ireland, quite a character. If you haven’t seen the wonderful take-off of his state visit to Britain, you will enjoy this

President Higgins on State Visit to Britain

Meanwhile he has been musing on the future after Covid with Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. But first you get a sense of how he deals with the relative isolation of these times in his official residence in the Phoenix Park in Dublin

“I go out with my dog,” he says via Zoom, “and I walk around the periphery here. I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much exaggerated social distancing.” 

The question which absorbs many of us at the moment is how life is going to be when the pandemic crisis eventually comes to an end. In particular we wonder how we can avoid a repetition of what happened after the financial crash of 2008 where basically we bailed out the banks and life continued pretty much as before..

I find myself constantly wondering how we can understand better the flaws in our society which have been ruthlessly exposed by Covid – where wealth and social class have greatly affected risk and where BAME communities have been disproportionately affected. If the government in London does ultimately concede the enquiry which is so badly needed, we may have a chance of finding out. The worst thing will be for us just to pick up and be delighted that we can carry on ‘as normal’. To some extent, we will all do that – socialising and maybe even beginning to travel again – but we owe it to those who have suffered so much to do much more.

President Higgins, who used to be a Labour politician in Ireland, says that there is a real challenge to the ‘ever-smaller government’ mindset:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

Lockdown – gilded cage for some

I’ve now lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown.  We miss the stimulation of social contact.   I devour the papers.  l read a lot.  We trawl Netflix and the rest hoping – usually in vain – for diversion.  We try to have a walk most days.  I’ve been decorating in our house. 

Beyond that, we look after our grandchildren as we are allowed to do.  And we Zoom with friends.  

We may be bored.  But it’s a privileged lifestyle in retirement,  We live more simply than usual and we spend less.  Our pensions keep coming.  We aren’t unemployed or likely to be so.   We aren’t struggling to keep a business which we have built up afloat.  We are fortunate

Irish Times journalist Una Mullally wrote recently that,

The divide is between those who have not been financially hit by the pandemic and those who have not just been financially devastated, but have seen their livelihoods implode

But perhaps the greatest social, cultural and political force right now, and into the future, is resentment. Resentment is a potent force and sometimes lacks a basis in reality, gets weaponised and finds the wrong targets. But this time it’s authentic.’

This is bad enough when we are still in the midst of the pandemic.  But it has profound implications in the post-Covid world.  Things surely will not just ‘go back to normal’.  Some like the retired and those who have been paid by the government will continue to be relatively secure and will enter the post-Covid world with some reserves accumulated when we didn’t have much to spend money on.

Those for whom Covid has brought financial disaster will start in the new post-Covid world at a significant disadvantage – and they will have to rebuild not just their finances but their initiative and their hope.’

This is inequality – and to some extent injustice.  It certainly strikes at the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative.  Plainly we aren’t – and there are all the other differences as well .. big houses and small apartments, for example

Writing in the Church Times (19 February) Bishop Peter Selby drew attention to the Financial Conduct Authority forecast that ‘

one in three adults is likely to cut back on essentials; one in ten to will use a foodbank; one quarter will be financially vulnerable, and one eighth will face increased debts — all increases of about 15 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, the charity sector has been hit by a tidal wave of demand and a serious reduction in income.

I’m not quite sure where this leads. But it certainly suggests to me that, when the economy opens up again, people who have been financially secure during lockdown need to think about the impact of their spending on jobs. Those who have suffered need to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible.

After Covid – Worship

I’m glad that I am not in pastoral leadership of a congregation at present.  Clergy have been learning all sorts of new skills – and people have adapted well.  But it’s going to take time to rebuild congregations and, in particular to draw younger people back in

I have enjoyed being able to be part of congregations in many places The opportunity for people to see what is happening in other congregations and in the worship provided by the Scottish Episcopal Church must surely reduce our tendency to congregationalism.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve picked up two examples of thoughtful consideration of how clergy and congregations can meet the challenge of providing worship online.

The first was a half page in the Irish Times from Maria Jansson, Dean of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Waterford in the south-east of Ireland.  The headline was ‘Pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone.  That’s not a bad thing.”   ‘Leadership’ she says ‘will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar.’  Ouch!.

It is clear that she has been on a journey of exploration.  One initiative which she mentions is, ‘Prayer at Breakfast’ which lasts 6-8 minutes each day.  As she says, if she did the traditional thing of heading into the Cathedral to ‘say the Office’ she would be lucky to have three people with her.  Prayer at Breakfast has now being going for more than 100 days and 130-160 join in every morning.

She describes the challenge as being to establish authentic Christian community again rather than ‘going through the motions’

The second came from Church News Ireland which reports that Badminton Benefice, a group of 10 rural parishes in the Diocese of Gloucester, has been offering online services in the first lockdown.  What they do is worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and they say that the increase in their congregations has been 1500%.

it seems to me that worship on Zoom crosses two lines – probably more than that but it’s a start.  The first is where worship leadership and broadcasting meet.  Broadcasting has quite a bit to contribute – pace and tightness to start with – and the opportunity of hearing a number of voices.  The second is about the movement in worship between formal and informal.  I’ve always been interested in that – how you move easily and quickly from one to the other.  It seems to me to be good to hear a congregation talking informally – before worship begins and at the Peace.

I am pretty sure that the online presence of worship is going to be here to stay.  Obviously it has its place in enabling the housebound to be part of the congregation.  But it also has value as yet another ‘way in’ to worshipping life.  If you can peep round the church door to see what it is like and whether there are ‘people like me’ in the congregation – without actually having to open the door – that surely is helpful!