It is the end of our service of worship, on a cold, wet and miserable afternoon already getting dark, when the kindly steward, in an almost embarrassed way, encourages us to move on, not to mingle and talk, to get out of the building as quickly and as orderly as we can, while maintaining social distancing, and they begin the task of re-sanitising the building, wiping down every surface and door handle and spraying each chair. The air is now filled with that funereal alcohol scent, and I am wondering what has happened
This time last year it was different. The building was full with 250, maybe more, worshippers, some crowded up in the gallery, a disparate group of all ages and backgrounds from all continents in the world, babies and children, young families, students, internationals and a sprinkling of octogenarians. Sunday mornings, in the past often carried a cloud for me, one I only recognised when it lifted. I had probably gotten used to it. But in these last years I would wake up thinking “Yes! It’s Sunday, this is the day the Lord has made” and worship with our local congregation, ten minutes’ walk away, was always something to be eagerly looked forward to. It was the highlight of the week.
There was the praise, often led by a skilled and sensitive band, not in your face but enough to encourage you to sing your heart out. There was the psalm singing. The unaccompanied assorted voices in harmony, giving fresh articulation to these ancient songs that together cover every emotion and every struggle and have been the hymn book of the church for centuries. The music would fill the marvellous acoustics of the place, be lifted to the roof and beyond. Some joined with strong voices in perfect pitch, others that wee bit out of tune and the odd baby crying, but together, and as one. There was the public reading of scripture, with different voices and intonation, the cadence and the droll. There was the pastoral prayers and prayers for the world led by individuals each with their own insight and burden and there was the preaching; that mysterious thing, that reaches down to the basics, cuts to the bone, that challenges, encourages and comforts, that something that only comes from this Holy Word inspired by the Holy Spirit. Being present there is something I would not miss for the world. The after-service atmosphere was a buzz of conversations, introductions and welcomes, small groups in laughter others sharing news, some in silence, others distressed being comforted and the little adoring crowd around a new baby. There was so much going on.
Now all that has changed. Yes, we still have the public reading of scriptures and prayers and yes, we still have this Word preached but it is now a pale shadow of the real thing. It is almost a caricature of worship. We are restricted to an arbitrary 50, we have to book in advance and it feels like we have been bombed. The main doors are wide open to let fresh air in, even though the interior space is massive. There are signs everywhere and tables with sanitisers at each entrance. But what distresses me most is the people. They seem to be sanitised out of existence: spaced out, distanced in isolated groups and hidden behind masks, the kind that bank robbers, hangmen and terrorists wear. And, yes, the surgeons and the dentist too, reminding you of the anxiety that grips the stomach on the examination couch or chair when you hear the words “This may hurt”. It is not just the wearing of a mask which, for me at least, is a really unpleasant nausea inducing experience, but it is seeing people you know and love and care about, peering over this awful piece of cloth, no matter how tastefully decorated, with frightened, suspicious, puzzled and sometimes scary looking eyes. It is dehumanising and humiliating. I wonder what on earth we have come to and who on earth is behind it all?
Before being hustled out of the church, we share a few words with a friend. It is hard to hear at a distance and without the benefit of reading lips. She is a clinical phycologist and can’t talk about her work, but she did say tellingly that referrals to her service had more than double in the past months and this is just the beginning. They are gearing up for a tsunami of cases. In the row behind, someone is distressed and crying but we can’t console her. We have to pass bye on the other side. We are helpless. We have just listened to an astonishing sermon on the humanity fo Jesus, by what must be the finest of preachers, yet we can do nothing. All our caring instincts are stifled by the dead hand of authoritarian folly. So, we leave the building, torn apart. And I am angry.
I am angry: that we are putting up with this insanity, while the vulnerable suffer, angry that we bow to the authorities’ strictures, even although we know that they are patently useless and do terrible harm, angry that as a church we have not been able to make an effective challenge to the restrictions, angry that we allow our leaders in government to continue to meddle and micromanage the minutia of our lives, quite oblivious to the destruction they are perpetuating.
I am angry, but it is not about me. It is not about my family. It is not about my tribe. It is not, even about Christians or the church. This is not persecution. No, this is an onslaught on our humanity that affects us all. It is a mass social experiment which has never been tried before, with little thought or imagination of what might be the consequences. And you would not need much imagine to see that launching a programme of fear, denying person -to-person contact, isolating individuals and mandating all sorts of ridiculous behaviour, for whatever noble reason, will not end well.
And it is very hard to make any meaningful protest. I have tried. Believe me, I have tried. I have written to my MP my MSP to the first Minster to the Clinical Director. On the rare occasions when a response is given it is the predictable repeating of the dogma and no engagement with the question. Even on my one excursion onto BBC’s Any Answers radio programme, Anita Anand ticked me off, politely of course, as she would, for even questioning the rationale for lock-down. “If we don’t,” she said, “people will die”. I felt as if I was a selfish swine, a heartless heretic and a covid denier all rolled into one.
My best friend tells me to let it be. “you can’t do anything about it, so don’t waste your time fretting over it”. There is a lot of wisdom there, still the burden for my area of responsibility can’t be so easily ditched. I will go along with the charade until I can see a way out, always hoping that there is some creative solution that will cut through the madness. If there is an original idea out there, I could use it right now.
But another Sunday has arrived and it will be our last for some time as the doors are shut again. So much for a route map out of “lock-down”. This one goes round in circles as we are softened up for a new totalitarianism.
I feel quite dizzy.