• Brian Mountford


Some of you may know I am publisher of an imprint called Christian Alternative for a small British publishing firm. In March, the owner sent out an email to authors inviting any of us to write a book about the Covid crisis. This is the kind of thing that has to be done in a few days rather than months or you miss the whole point of topicality.

It was a task beyond me, but I was reminded of an essay I wrote last year about the future for the Church in which I speculated about how religion might respond to a major political upheaval, whether caused by climate change, energy-shortage, terrorism, migration, or some crazy autocrat pressing the nuclear button. The one scenario I didn’t spot was a pandemic.

The article had begun with the fact that in this country 56% of the population say they have no religion, and in the 18-24 age group that rises to 72%.

I said in some of those outcomes, notably terrorism, religious/political ideology might have been a negative motivating factor anyway, but on the positive side, religion in its organised form might help to ameliorate a crisis through emergency aid, caring for victims, and providing appropriate rituals for burial of the dead, remembering victims, and seeking peace and reconciliation.

Often in extreme situations, people turn to religion for stability, in search of values that transcend the miseries and challenges of a crisis. This was clearly visible in New Zealand in the aftermath of the Christ Church mosque massacre of March 2019.

What the pandemic has done is to force churches to close their doors. Some clergy have protested, while knowing rationally it’s the right thing to do. Community has been pushed online, and pastors aren’t even able to sit with the dying, which is something I have done often enough in my career, the last time three days before the lockdown.

It’s made me ask again what is at the core of religion. Is it more about what you do, and who you are, than what you believe? What prompted Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan was a lawyer’s question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – not what must I believe, you notice. And when Jesus threw the question back at him, he answered to love God and your neighbour as yourself.

I think most disputes within religions, and between religions, are about beliefs not about the flavour of the milk of human kindness.

My former colleague, Giles Fraser, says ‘the battle over God (atheist/theist) is really a battle about a certain sort of emotional literacy. For the Christian life is as much dependent on arguments about God’s existence as birds are dependent upon ornithology.

And the novelist Francis Spufford in a book entitled, ‘Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense’, says, ‘a surprisingly large number of believers are at work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it and to keep sorrow company.’

I think those two phrases get to the heart of the matter: ‘to love for the sake of it’ recklessly, prodigally; and ‘to keep sorrow company’.

One of the great problems of the present time is that it’s very hard to keep sorrow company, and the burden of it, in hospitals, is falling on medical staff to hold the hand of the dying.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming religious people have a special knack for empathy. We’re all in this together. And it’s very telling that nearly all religions and many humanist philosophies agree that the key to social ethics is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

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