Workshop on “Christian Theological Response to COVID19”
Thursday, 29 October 2020
Bishop Lawrence, Director, CTLT, organizer of the workshop, in his introductory remarks highlighted the fact that so far, the worldwide rate of cases of COVIC-19 had reached over forty-four million, while worldwide deaths were almost one point two million.
Bishop Martin, who moderated the workshop, added that few probably thought that disease could be a significant driver of human history, and that was not so anymore. That COVID-19 has already ushered in, or accelerated significant changes such as in telemedicine, remote work, on-line shopping, and the death of the handshake, and that the world is in turmoil with over two hundred nations affected.
In his keynote address Dr. Ken Gnanakan, Chancellor of ACT Academy of Higher Education, Bangalore, India, reflected on the Christian response in the ancient third century Plague of Cyprian, and the resurgence of the Bubonic Plague that hit Wittenberg in the sixteenth century. He referenced Martin Luther’s refusal to leave the city, rather to stay and minister to the sick, including friends who would die. Dr, Gnanakan noted three characteristics of a Christian response to epidemics; do no harm, help where we can, and bear our share of the losses. He stressed Luther’s point that “the plague does not dissolve our duties; it turns them into crosses on which we must die!” He also quoted from N.T. Wright’s article in Time magazine in which he stated that Christianity has no solutions for the pandemic, and that people are asking “where are all those Christian healers?” Dr. Gnanakan said that Wright was right in a way, but that he brings out a beautiful thought that it is time for us to lament; that we should lament and then look positively towards the future, taking the principles learned and putting them into action. rather than saying that it was an attack by Satan, or a judgement from God. He went on to highlight Walter Brueggemann’s observation that because of the virus we have been able to gain “a new vision of neighborliness”. This is a theme that would be addressed frequently throughout the discussion. He observed that humanity, humankind is very resilient and that we have faced many pandemics, and life continues. In a personal reflection, Dr. Gnanakan said that he was experiencing new joy in parting with some of his goods and sharing with those in need. That he had never had this experience before, even as he had grudgingly given before, but this time he was enjoying doing it. Whatever normality we enter, this new, neighborliness must become a part of us. That there will be newness and surprises to come, but we should leave it in God’s hands, God is in control.
Bishop Kevin Donlon, of Anglican Union, Florida, USA, led the response and pointed to the importance of the CTLT and ACTS in providing theological training for the purpose of entering into ministry, and that the questions Dr. Gnanakan raised are critical as to what ministry will look like in a post-COVID world of cultural clashes. He said that the good news is that the pandemic has accelerated trends that have provided opportunities for Grace. In looking at how we must rethink how we do ministry he cited the example of drive-in church which has been used in his parish since March, which is also broadcast over radio. These new trends present both challenges and opportunities. In commenting on the extent of the tragedy in India he noted the work of Stanley Hauerwas in his book Truthfulness and Tragedy who said, “Tragic situations occur, and when tragic situations occur moral conflicts will arise,” and that “those conflicts cannot be resolved, they can’t be bypassed, they demand choices. They demand difficult choices, and some of those choices will result in suffering.” The Bishop said that while, as noted, the church may not have solutions, it does have to offer people of the world and pastors as the people of the world are watching, an opportunity and a possibility of how to suffer with Grace, because the suffering is not going to go away. Hauerwas says that this is essential to the vocation of the church. In highlighting the dilemma of moral conflict, the Bishop pointed to the situation of a shortage of ventilators and how doctors, under the obligation of their Hippocratic oath, must decide who gets to live and who dies! They do not want to be involved in such decisions, that is not their role as doctors, but what we must realize is that this pandemic has shattered our illusion that we are in control. We are not, God is in control, even amidst tragedies; He is there in tragedy as well as in triumph. We have to address a new way of valuing, it has challenged people’s ethical sensibilities, and here Bishop Donlon cited the hoarding that has gone on where vast supplies of essentials were obtained by a few to be then sold at exorbitant prices to those in need. He affirmed that our duties are not dissolved as a result of a pandemic or crisis, in fact the Gospels tell us that our duties are elevated, as Jesus said, “whenever you see anyone like this, you see me!” He further address how utilitarianism has been the operative modality of many government entities during this pandemic and this is not the way to go because utilitarianism suggests that we are going to do whatever is ever is best for the greatest number of people and as a result, those on the underside of the equation are left with well, that’s life, what can we do! While as Christians we may not have a solution, we must have a response because what we maintain as Christians is that the highest moral value is the very human life that God has given us. That needs to be safeguarded and upheld, particularly when life becomes arbitrary in a pandemic. He asked, “what happens when you have the church essentially closing up shop?” He used the example of the Church of England effectively closing for months so that you could not even come into church to offer prayer. He said that we must be able to offer a response that is authentic and rooted in the Gospel. That above all, the church must be seen as credible, and that accepting that God is in control we can at least say in response that yes, life is fragile, and precarious at this moment, but we in the church are willing to be vulnerable with you. That vulnerability is at the heart of authenticity, which is essential if we are to offer a response that is authentic to a hurting and broken world. We cannot continue in the way we were, and we cannot form clergy in the way we used to train them. The questions are many, and we do not yet have the answers, but we at least need to recognize that we need to ask a different set of questions.
In his response, Pastor Alson Ebanks, a prominent Christian Leader in the Cayman Island’s noted that the early church’s response to pandemic was often compassionate and sacrificial, but without the knowledge of how pathogens are spread that science has since provided. That the realities then, and the realities now are quite different, and we can only respond appropriately in the context in which we live. That the informed cynic and the informed faithful in the church now might ask whether the willingness of these former saints to sacrifice themselves would have been less keen if they had the quality of knowledge about contagion that we have today. That such compassion may have in fact contributed to the further spread of the disease! He stated that scientific truth is God’s truth, and that in addition to courage and compassion, that the Christian ethic of neighborliness includes the desire and determination, as Luther proposed, to “do no harm.” Informed and effective stewardship of compassion as an expression of love is not a lower form of compassion. That our willingness to help someone in the context of a pandemic could mean that we may in fact put others’ lives at risk. As Christians we should not be vectors of viruses, just as we should not deny sick persons the benefit of the incarnational expression of God’s Grace. People always need people, especially in crisis, and they do not need careless people, dangerous people, they need caring people, caring but careful. That the church needs to consider the question of whether we are prepared to meet the needs of an end-times generation? That the pandemic has been a catalyst for introspection, and investigation into the eschatological perspective of the church. and has created an uninvited audience for which we have never planned. He also noted that the church has been best when Christ was expected to return soon, and that we should also address the question of whether we are prepared, as a global church, to meet the needs of the end-times generation. The pandemic has provided an uninvited audit of the church’s functional and spiritual scope. Has this audit shown the church to be sufficiently equipped to meet the fellowship needs of the local and global body of the church? In Acts we find a church that was living with an eschatological mindset. They incarnated the Gospel holistically, as they spread the Gospel for others. The eschatological mindset of the church is too narrowly focused on the spiritual and needs to be a more multifaceted approach. He went on to say that we need a new vision of neighborliness, and an agenda of local, regional, national, and international self-sufficiency as an eschatological imperative. The church is far too dependent, externally, to be able to meet its own needs. Most churches are dependent on the tithes and offering of its people and are not able to help those people when they do not have the means to help themselves. Scripture does not tell us that these crises are going to become less or less severe, so the church must pursue an agenda of self-sufficiency as an eschatological imperative. Our learnings from this crisis should not be wasted. That we need to be a part of God’s agenda as we turn the significant corner going forward from 2020.
Dr. Samuels-Lee brought her psychological and theological thought to bear in her response as she considered that we are constrained in our responses. She referenced the Cayman Island’s government constraints regarding opening and closing and that as a church we were not prepared for that. That the church was thrown into disequilibrium and that responses made to date were no longer valid. We should be starting with self-reflection there also must be that order in which things have to be done considering the external constraints. Our resilience gives us a chance to look at opportunities while considering what are the enabling factors we do have, and what are those things we may have been taking for granted, and how can we best utilize them? There must be a renewed resilience as far as the church is concerned, but good sense must prevail in terms of our actions. Spiritual discernment must guide our responses, and we can plan accordingly as to how we move forward. We have factors that work in our favor, for example Zoom that is facilitating this meeting. Not just technology, neighbors are now checking to see how others are doing. Faith cannot stop at the church door! The challenge for the church is resilience, and how we move forward into this new norm?
The moderator posed a question as to whether the church should be considered an essential service? To which Dr, Lee asked if we, the church, has been proactive in presenting ourselves as such? If we were so recognized prior to this disequilibrium, then we would be a part of the network. Instead, we are coming from a place of reaction. We need to be more proactive in our communities so that when faced with these crises we are recognized as having something to offer beyond biblically, but also holistically.
Pauline Russell, one of Master’s student of CTLT, speaking on behalf of the student body, spoke to the accentuated plight of the poor and minorities. She noted that the Cayman Islands had not been as severely affected as other places, having only suffered one death because of COVID-19. She cited several scriptural references as to our responsibility to exercise a Christian response. She shared her personal experience in losing friends in the U.K., and how such loss caused her to become overwhelmed. In putting her thoughts on paper and reflecting on the words of a Bishop about the heart of a servant, she found encouragement to move from lament to action.
Open questions and answers then followed giving rise to further exploration of how the church should respond; that the world is not depending on us; that preaching is not effective when basic needs are not met. Dr. Gnanakan pointed out that in India it is the Moslems and Hindus who are the majority, and they have their own response to the pandemic. He continued that we, humanity is facing our sins, and we must look to our responsibility as we frame our response.
In addressing the eschatological issue, Bishop Donlon noted that our witness must be seen as credible and that it is not just our hope for the future that we consider, but the question of how we live now. In a culture that has left the church behind, what the world is looking for is not for the church to fix the pandemic, but rather will the church be credible in making a valiant attempt to witness to the Gospel? In India as in the United States, people are asking “what is the church doing?” The Christian church is under siege and we must ask if we believe in the eschatological hope, and are we witnessing to the point of credibility?
On the question regarding people’s confidence in science, and in particular whether a vaccine will be safe, respondents noted that the God of science is the same God of scripture; that we must not affirm rumors; that medicine is an art, not a science; where is God’s presence in all of this and how are we in leadership responding.
In conclusion, several major themes emerged.
• We are entering a new normal and old methods will not provide appropriate responses
• There has been a paradigm shift that demands a change in our thinking
• Training new faith leaders requires enabling them to answer the difficult and challenging questions of moral and ethical responses to such crises
• The church at the local, regional, national, and international levels has been ill-equipped to respond effectively and has been muffled/shutout as an effective and essential agent
• Science sheds a new light on the historical way the church responded to plague, and we must exercise careful compassion to avoid being a vector in worsening a pandemic such as we are experiencing today
• We must re-evaluate our resources and how we utilize them
• Put principles learned into action
• Exercise our new vision of neighborliness
• Authentic and credible witness are essential if we are to be taken seriously
• Ultimately, God is in control, and we must become agents of His plan through prayer and discernment