June 4. As an historian, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is missing from the menu of responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Where is the National Day of Fasting?
In part, my sense of omission merely reflects the secular bubble in which I live. When I enquire, I find that the World Evangelical Alliance designated 29 March as a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting. ‘The theme of the initiative’, explained the Alliance, ‘is “Lord help!”’ Its impact on Britain passed me by. On the last Sunday of the month there must have been more people watching their diet because of their waistline than as a form of spiritual apology.
There is a long Christian tradition of responding to outbreaks of infectious disease in this way. Fast days were instituted in Britain during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721. The theological rationale derived from the concept of special providences and divine judgments. Natural disasters were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of a community, and required petitionary prayers and promises of repentance if they were to be averted.
During the nineteenth century the growing salience of medical explanations of infectious diseases marginalised this reaction. According to Phillip Williamson, an authority on this subject, a decisive moment came in 1853, when the Home Secretary Lord Palmerston publicly rejected proposals for a fast day against an outbreak of cholera, arguing that the solution lay in better sanitation and public health. Now the churches have left the centre of the stage. Whilst car showrooms have just been re-opened, religious buildings, together with public houses, remain closed for at least another two months.
My view of the marginal role of the Church of England was increased by its response to the Flight out of London. The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was reported as threatening to sever relations between church and state. “Unless very soon we see clear repentance,” he said, “including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.” I don’t know why the church of Cranmer and the Prayer Book is now reduced to a twitter hashtag, nor can I understand why any bishop should suppose that Johnson is going to repent of anything. It’s like asking him to take up ballet dancing or synchronised swimming; it’s just not something he has ever done, knows how to do, would ever want to do.
And yet. As a Christian, the Bishop had a perfect right to speak of repentance. It is central to the spiritual rule book of his calling. There are values, and a structure of faith, forgiveness and redemption to cope with their inevitable infraction in a fallen world. For all the political excitement, Cummings encountered a basic moral dilemma. Unlike his employer, he is, by report, a deeply committed family man. When the virus entered his home, he was faced with a choice between the wellbeing of his immediate social unit, and that of society more broadly. His panicked solution may have been the wrong one, but he is scarcely the first to make such an error.
In the event, repentance would have been not only morally but also politically the better course of action. If in the Number 10 rose garden Cummings had explained his actions and then asked for forgiveness for a mistaken judgment, most of the subsequent damage to his government, and, more importantly, to the public’s trust in the state, would have been avoided.
We still have a shared moral discourse, the remains, in part, of a Christian heritage. It is worth reinforcing.