Peter Paul Rubens, The Incredulity of Thomas, 1615
Another week of our current version of ‘lockdown’ has passed and there is hope that we could avoid the huge loss of life suffered elsewhere overseas if we are prepared to continue somewhat indefinitely with the limitations currently imposed on our physical social interactions and distancing. New ways of being human are encountered as through collective self-restraint we seek to suppress this viral scourge.
One observation is how the calming of our busy modern schedules and the reduced choices we have compared to life in, say, December, has in fact tacitly permitted much pleasing social interaction, such as may be feasible in our current restricted social environment.
Strangers acknowledge each other in our more sparsely populated streets. The pace of the computer age has been dulled, our streets are less crowded as many practice social isolation to preserve their health. But those who dare venture forth for essential items, such as (take away) coffee have the time, and a revived inclination to speak with those around them. Is it just me in my clergy collar or do others experience this thaw of personal imperious veneers otherwise discouraging us making eye contact and so permitting us to simply acknowledge one another’s existence by saying ‘Good day’ to those we pass without being considered an intrusive freak?
Great thanks to Vivian Wang and her team who have been delivering meals provided by Gold Moon Chinese Restaurant to some of our isolated parishioners. Thanks too to Wilson, our parishioner at Tang Dumplings in Balaclava, for offering us discounted meals delivered cooked or pre-prepared for you to cook. Ask for Wilson when you order and say you are from St Andrew's.
Both of these are great examples of Christian concern and community building from our own parishioners in times when others find it difficult, indeed potentially dangerous, to venture too far afield.
Communion at home
‘Normally’, clergy and authorised lay pastoral carers carry the bread and the wine, consecrated by a priest in one service, to a receiving congregation (people at home or in hospital or in care). This is known as ‘Home Communion’ though its formal name is ‘Communion by Extension’. The Blessed Sacrament (wafers and wine), sometimes with the wafers marked with a dot of wine, is reserved from a church service in the ambury in the Lady Chapel. This wall cabinet has a white light permanently shining above it, representing Christ’s presence - the light of the world. There is a special liturgy for home communion similar to our usual Eucharist service, except for the omission of the prayer of consecration. In that service, reference is made to the fact that the elements have been consecrated by a priest at an earlier service. The congregation is then invited to share in a common communion as a symbol of having participated, belatedly in that church service.
In this ‘abnormal’ time, we cannot meet together for communion, nor can be conduct our usual Home Communion service with those who are housebound as we are all in the same boat at the moment. So….
St Andrew’s Communion Packs
Whether you are watching our video service each week, or wish to partake of Holy Communion in your own time, we are now offering ‘Communion Packs’. Having sourced suitable containers, we have prepared Communion Packs for use at home while the church is closed. The Packs including six wafers for Home Communion, together with a short Order of Service for receiving Home Communion and some reflections on the gift of the Blessed Sacrament.
If you would like a Communion Pack please contact Fr Ian by phone or SMS on 0421 321 321 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will arrange for them to be dropped off for you.
A reflection on our times
There was something counter-cultural, as there often is, in the Queen’s recent speech about coronavirus (here). She often speaks about duty and responsibility. This time she spoke about “self-discipline and quiet, good-humoured resolve.” These are, to be honest, not qualities prized in modern western society. But in this era of coronavirus, has duty replaced desire as the imperative of our time?
One of the things we do value in modern life is the right, as the American Declaration of Independence put it, ‘to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The idea that each of us should be free to pursue our own ambitions and wishes, as long as we do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same, is part of the bedrock of liberal democracy.
Individual self-expression trumps social conformity and community rights. The language of human rights has schooled us in insisting on our individual entitlements. These ‘rights’ always benefit the individual, not us all corporately. The idea of “doing your duty” is no longer the highly-valued bedrock of society,
In the modern world we no longer have a common idea of what a good life is, but we do have almost universal agreement on its preconditions. To have a good and happy existence, whatever your specific goals may be, you need enough money, friends, knowledge, health and rights to achieve those goals. Securing these resources for living your dream is the overriding rational imperative of modernity. The result is each of us is in a competition for the resources that enable us to live our own self-chosen version of the good life. It’s all about us as individuals.
Now all this is a departure from the view of society found in the classical tradition of Aristotle and Plato, continued to a certain extent in the Christian world, that saw self-restraint as vital to a healthy society.
St Paul wrote that leaders should be “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” In this moral tradition, the constant drift towards tyranny could only be held back by virtue and self-rule.
Government for the polis was only possible with personal self-government. Freedom was viewed, not as the liberty to pursue your passion, but freedom from passion—understood as the unpredictable, stormy emotions and urges that disturb the soul and distort the clarity of vision that comes from a tranquil heart and a clear head. Those inner urges needed to be controlled rather than let loose, and that control was best self-imposed rather than regulated by the state.
Over the past few weeks, however, we have seen something quite extraordinary. Without too much legal threat, we have voluntarily submitted to severe abstinence, denying ourselves the rights to mix freely, to go to cinemas, churches and restaurants, to watch live sport, even to shake hands. As we go through this period of collective self-denial, the suppression of our personal ambitions and desires, we are learning how to redirect our personal longings for a greater good, to sacrifice what we would normally like to do for the good of the whole of society.
We are learning that for a society to work, and to stave off the threats that confront it, the prioritisation of individual choice on its own is not enough. A society cannot survive if each one of us pursues our own self-chosen goals independently of everyone else. Accordingly we now obligingly stand on ‘X marks the social-distancing spot’ as we wait for our order of fish and chips or take-away coffee.
We have to exercise restraint, the Queen’s “self-discipline and resolve,” to learn the capacity to sacrifice our own desires for the sake of the wider community.
The question is, when this is all over, whether we will go back to what we have been used to in the recent past, or whether we will restore something of an equilibrium between the demands of individual ambition and the common good.
Saint Paul wrote that the Christian idea of grace, the notion that we are recipients of goodness that we didn’t create, “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”
It may sound quaint and unambitious. But unless we can learn to live self-controlled, disciplined lives, a little more like the ones we’re having to lead right now, there may be little future for our planet or the people who live on it. Maybe coronavirus is giving us a crash course in a different moral universe—one that might just be the saving of us.