“The Church seems to have mobilised no-one”. The NHS is our “new national religion”. These two repeated refrains in the media from many who should know better, in different ways, disparage the Churches’ response to the Coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to Christian institutions and their leaders the gloves seem to come off. Is this a bi-product of pervasive anxiety about the pandemic and anger at our plight? Or is discussion of religion a hallowed exception to the convention that words have meaning while conclusions and criticism should be based on evidence, analysis and study?
The NHS does embody, and embodied, the values of care, compassion and human equality shared with the Churches – in a predominantly secular country. Some months ago in a blog, I described the NHS as the most important custodian of, what was then, the subject of considerable public debate about ‘British values’ and thus national identity. That does not make the NHS a ‘new national religion’ - unless the word religion is voided of much of its content. We do not call British troops who have died in combat in the Middle East in poorly armoured vehicles martyrs. We call them heroes just as we call NHS staff, and others, who die in the course of putting themselves in danger, doing their job courageously with inadequate protective equipment, heroes.
True, it is remarkable that the NHS still manages to embody and express British values in the eyes of the public given the pressures put on it in the last decade. It is doubtful that the upper reaches of the Conservative Party really share this view of the NHS. Andrew Lansley as Minister of Health, thanks to the lazy, hands-off acquiescence of Prime Minister David Cameron, was allowed to waste some £4 billion making his destructive mark on the NHS. Out of sight of the general public Lansley dismantled health planning structures, causing several years of chaos, in order to hand over hospital commissioning to GPs. Community care and GP services, the key to good health care, were starved of funding; life expectancy, a recognised measure of health services’ effectiveness, particularly amongst the poorest, began to decline.
After 2010, austerity, underfunding and rising demand accompanied culpably inadequate recruitment of additional nurses and doctors to replace those retiring. Then came the massive distraction of BREXIT ushering in an inexperienced, incompetent and unprepared Cabinet. We now know the consequences. The public, had it been given the full picture, would have had reason to doubt that the Conservatives cherished and relied on the NHS as much as they did. But the Labour opposition was too busy opposing itself. The wonder is that the public and, with great heroism, health and care workers, have managed to cling to the values embodied by the beleaguered NHS at this time of crisis and after this battering. A million people offered their help as volunteer responders with others turned away.
One reason for the failure to acknowledge the extensive pastoral work of the Churches undertaken by small active groups of Christians and Christian-inspired organisations, such a Church Action on Poverty, is that it is below the radar, one which detects only weighty ecclesiastical bodies. The absence of religious correspondents from the staff of nearly all newspapers is a contingent contributory reason. Only Popes, Archbishops, and Cardinals, on the move or speaking out, especially when the media consider they have a right to be saying something, for example at Easter and Christmas, gain attention. And they have been accused of not being sufficiently prominent in making comforting pronouncements about the pandemic. Yet this is clearly a time in which “preach the Gospel with all your heart and mind and sometimes use words” applies.
The under-reported reality is a permanent and formidable mobilisation of Christians working in what might be called the informal hospitality sector. Food banks, hot meals from church kitchens and night shelters in parish halls for the homeless, are now so commonplace they have become unnoticed. Another invisible mobilisation is that of the already existing chaplains - from different faith communities - visiting prisons, hospitals and care homes. Then there are the Christian volunteers making sure the elderly living alone are provided for at the level of material and social needs. The ecumenical YourNeighbour.org, for example, is a support hub linking people to a thousand churches responding to local needs created by Coronavirus. And you can add to this the Churches’ continuing work with trafficked people and refugees who are even more vulnerable to levels of exploitation and infection at present.
Thousands of Catholics will be reading the following, or similar words,in parochial newsletters and bulletins this week linking them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society: “SVP - CORONAVIRUS OUTREACH: As this crisis escalates, we want to provide our parishioners with as much support as possible. If you are self-isolating and need assistance with shopping, collecting prescriptions, transport, chores at home or any other tasks, please call our parish SVP phone number and we will organise assistance”.
Scorn is easily poured on the Christian preoccupation with creating ‘community’ but it’s difficult to find another word to describe the groupings of people coming together from different walks of life to keep the poor and disadvantaged alive during the pandemic, local Councils, business leaders, faith communities. Try, for example, the Blackpool Network of Churches now producing three meals a day for 80 people in Operation Need to Feed. Multiply by several hundred for similar work in which the Churches deploy their assets and play an important part around the country. What is that if not community action? And why should there be virtue in the Church ‘going it alone’.
A notable and positive thing about this terrible pandemic is the bringing together of people with outstanding, and sometimes heroic, secular values with people from faith communities reared in different religious ethical traditions. “I’ve been inspired by how our Christian community has responded to this crisis” London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said at Easter. Tendentious, superior jeering at the Church of England, a favourite target, merely perpetuates the tired and facile secular-versus religious divide. When people act for the Common Good, divisions fall away…. That is if they aren’t carelessly promoted.