from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Repentance

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.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Good Friday, rituals, processions and mayeritsa …

It’s Good Friday today. Good Friday is the day of mourning for Jesus. Jesus was actually crucified on a Thursday. It’s called Red Thursday and it’s the day we dye eggs red. When out shopping for food every woman I met on the street including myself has red tinged fingers from dyeing and polishing eggs. Last night the TV stations were screening all the famous religious epics. Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and many more. Nobody says Happy Easter here in Greece. We say Good Easter but rarely. Mostly we say, Good Resurrection.

Every Good Friday night all Greeks take to the streets and follow the procession of the Epitaphios, the funeral bier, of Jesus. Not this Good Friday of course. The government seems to have understood how important it is to have these rituals and they have said we are allowed to go onto the street and witness the processions, for all churches have their own. Not participate as usual while we carry candles representing light and stop at the stations of the cross. No. Just witness the procession from afar. I’d like to see the government try and stop the Ultra-faithful, which is half of Greece, from joining in. It would be wonderful if they did – and all maintained physical distance. What a sight that would be. The discipline of modern disciples.

In the meantime, more food has to be prepared. I’m caring for three elderly people. My parents and my aunt, my mother’s sister who lives on the fifth floor of our apartment building. She’s only 80. Don’t chuckle, that’s youthful nowadays, but she loves having someone to run her errands and cook her meals while she and her sister spend their days gossiping over coffees, watching the televised church services and torturing me with requests and demands.

They have all asked for me to make the traditional mayeritsa for the Saturday midnight meal after the service of the Resurrection that breaks the fast of Lent. Mayeritsa is a gruesome looking stew made from the offal of the Paschal lamb. I loathe it but I make it purely out of tradition and so does everybody else judging by the fragrance in the air. The heavy gamey flavours of the offal are offset by the rich abundance of herbs. The entire neighbourhood is perfumed with the refreshing scent of dill and mint. It’s a comforting little sense of unity.

For two days in a row my kitchen looks like a crime scene. Red dye has splashed onto the tiles behind the cooktop. I have hearts, lungs and liver spread out on my counter top ready for blanching and chopping before being submerged into the sea of simmering alliums and herbs. My aunt walks in and tells me there’s been an announcement from Mount Athos that all the monks of the monasteries are praying in unison for this wretched virus to leave Greece quickly and that for their prayers to reach us we must place a crucifix on our front door for their prayers to find their targets. There are crucifixes in our house galore, my mother has seen to that, but I don’t have a little one to hang on the door handle. The monks have thought of everything. They say those who don’t have a small cross to hang are to simply dip a corner of cloth or their fingers into the oil of our lamps in our shrines and anoint our doors with the shape of a crucifix three times for the Holy Trinity. Before I go to sleep I remember and dip my fingers into the oil of the lamp in our shrine and trace a crucifix on our front door, thrice.

I feel a little bit like Voltaire must’ve felt when he announced if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. The rituals have brought me peace. It’s a comforting sense of continuity in a time where we don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s so quiet there’s a disquiet. The rituals provide security in a time there is none.