There are three items in this week’s blog offering. The major contribution is a fascinating theological reflection on COVID-19 by one of the two Canon Theologians in our diocese, Revd Professor Robin Gill. It is based on a presentation which he offered yesterday (28 May) to a Zoom meeting of the Chapter. Revd Professor Jack McDonald, our other Canon Theologian, will have his opportunity to reflect next week!
This is complemented by a poem my husband Canon Alan Amos has just written. The virus has somehow encouraged the poet in Alan that has been a key part of him all our married life! This poem is written with Pentecost in mind.
And we begin with sharing a prayer that could be described as co-written between Alan and myself, with input also from Bishop David Hamid. When about two months ago, Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, started to hold services that were Eucharists celebrated by priests in their own homes, with the worship shared by Zoom with the congregation, it became important to find and include a prayer that expressed the desire of those who could not receive the physical elements of Communion to make their ‘spiritual communion.’ Perhaps partly because it was such an innovation within Anglican practice, we opted then for quite a ‘traditional’ prayer – that of St Alphonsus Liguori to underpin this practice, and we are grateful to those who drew it to our attention. But St Alphonsus’ prayer is quite ‘Italianate’ and perhaps jars a bit on some Anglican sacramental sensibilities. However we could not find satisfactory alternatives on the Church of England website so St Alphonsus has been quite widely used in the last couple of months. Nonetheless, nudged by a friend in Geneva who is not a fan of St Alphonsus’ offering, we finally composed a prayer for the purpose of ‘spiritual communion’ that we feel is better reflective of mainstream Anglican spirituality and offer it below. Our understanding is that because there is not currently a formally authorised prayer for this purpose offered in Common Worship it is canonically permissible to use such a prayer, said by a member of the congregation before participants partake in the act of ‘spiritual communion.’ We would welcome further discussion and reflection on this theme, which is likely to be with us for a while yet.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
A Prayer for the Act of Spiritual Communion/ Uniting in Communion
We offer and present to you, Lord our heavenly Father, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and living sacrifice; grant that being present together in heart and mind at this holy communion we may now be filled with your heavenly blessing through the redeeming grace of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ… [ short pause ]
… Lord Jesus Christ, in outward signs of bread and wine you have made known your presence among us; (* as we unite with one another from the places where we are // may we unite ourselves with you and embrace you with our hearts, souls and minds). May your communion be fulfilled in us now through the work of the life-giving Holy Spirit. Amen.
*the alternatives offered in the brackets above are still under discussion!
(Two interesting reflections, ‘tracts’, on the theme of the Eucharist and Communion in these ‘difficult days’ are offered by Rev Christopher Craig Brittan of the Anglican Church of Canada, where he is Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, Toronto, and are available here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/the-eucharist-and-coming-out-of-lockdown-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times/ and here https://www.anglicanjournal.com/on-virtual-communion-a-tract-for-these-covid-19-times-ii/)
The well known prayer, Anima Christi, found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, also works well in this context:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malignant enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That with Thy Saints I may praise Thee
Forever and ever. Amen.
‘May the scent of beauty’s flowers…’
A poem for Pentecost
Gracious Spirit enter your home
anoint our senses one by one;
restore our sight when inly blind
we tread dark corridors of the mind,
restore our taste for things divine
most surely found in bread and wine,
restore our sharing in these things
of holiness, may angel wings
hover above, around us still
defeating every thought of ill.
May the scent of beauty’s flowers
bring joy into the passing hours;
we look ahead to love’s embrace
to greet each other, face to face
and hear the voices that we love
no longer heard at one remove.
Comfort we pray those in pain
of mourning and bring hope again.
In all these things be our sure guide,
your healing presence at our side.
Recent Theological Reflections on Covid-19
Recently I have read two outstanding theological reflections on Covid-19, one by the veteran Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and the other by the Goldingays.
Walter Brueggemann’s short paperback book, Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief and Uncertainty (Eugene, ON: Cascade Books, 2020, 80pp.: 978–1-7252–7673-4. $14) is readily available on Amazon and a very good buy.
It opens with an extremely important distinction between three different ‘interpretive options’ in the Old Testament concerning the onslaught of a ‘plague’ (while recognising frankly that ‘plague’ is not to be equated simplistically with Covid-19):
- A transactional quid pro quo that issues in punishment for violators
- A purposeful mobilization of negative force in order to effect God’s own intent
- A raw holiness that refuses and defies our best explanations, so that God’s force is an irreducible reality in the world.
The first of these options is most evident in parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and, then, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel – signalling that ‘God’s creation is ordered according to a reliable moral intention that is non-negotiable’. The second features in Exodus, Isaiah and some of the Psalms — signalling ‘that the terror of YHWH is mobilized in order to preserve and enhance the rule of YHWH against usurpatious pride’. Whereas the third is most evident in the final chapters of Job and ‘concerns the sheer holiness of God that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all’. Brueggemann finds resonance in each, arguing that they go beyond a purely rational and scientific understanding of Covid-19 (as necessary as that still is). His own preference is clearly for the third option, pointing to a growing awareness of our current ecological fragility resulting from human technological exploitation of God’s creation. Subsequent chapters apply this crucial insight to particular Psalms (especially 77), 2 Samuel 24, 1 Kings 8, and Isaiah 42 and 43. In each of these chapters he pays particular attention to the Hebrew concepts of ‘compassion’, ‘justice’ and ‘solidarity’, while weaving in criticisms of scientism (a form of ‘magic’), escapist consumerism and the simplicities of Donald Trump (Brueggemann is American) in the context of Covid-19.
John Goldingay and Kathleen Scott Goldingay’s article ‘Thinking with the Old Testament about the pandemic’ is available in the current issue of the journal that I edit, Theology (May/June 2020, Vol.123.3, pp.198-203) which is widely available in on-line Sage packages that all good libraries hold. Their reflections are largely consonant with those of Brueggemann (unsurprisingly, since some of his chapters are re-publications of earlier work), but they do add some intriguing observations. For example, on Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, they note that there are crucial differences between 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 6: ‘Samuel-Kings knows that in its day Judah is undergoing Yahweh’s chastisement and needs to think in those terms; Chronicles knows that in its day Judah needs encouragement about Yahweh’s grace rather than rebuke.’ They also note that: ‘In Jeremiah and Ezekiel Yahweh threatens epidemic twenty-nine times, as an aspect of the disaster menacing Jerusalem that they sought to prepare people for, or preferably to obviate. But there are no accounts of Yahweh fulfilling that threat when Jerusalem fell, as there are of death by sword and famine.’ And they finish their article with this poignant observation: ‘Alongside what the Torah does not say about epidemic and famine, Leviticus 19.13-18 would imply that such an event requires us to give concrete expression to loving our neighbour. We have been touched by a student offer to us as vulnerable oldies to do shopping for us, and we ourselves have been thinking about the needs of some friends whose academic gig-economy income has disappeared along with their work, and about how we can help them put food on the table’.
My own work is within Christian ethics and focuses more often upon the New Testament. In an article that I have road-tested on fellow members of the Diocesan Chapter, on Bishop Robert’s suggestion, I have been exploring the theme ‘Virtuous Living for the Faithful Elderly During Covid-19’ (this article will appear either in the September issue of Theology or in a journal of medical ethics). As someone over 70, I have found particular stimulus from St Luke’s story of Simeon and Anna greeting the baby Jesus in the temple.
Anna’s age is given as eighty-four and Simeon is often portrayed as being elderly, although Luke only implies that he is near to ‘seeing death’. Both are evidently devout and Simeon is also depicted as ‘righteous’. In Christopher Evan’s wonderful commentary Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 1990) – published when he was eighty himself, albeit still with another twenty-three years to live – Simeon is depicted as ‘a godly and inspired layman’ rather than the ‘priest’ of later tradition. Anna says nothing in the story, but Simeon echoes the canticles of Mary and Zechariah in the previous chapter of Luke:
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2.29-32)
Evans explains that this canticle is, like the other two, ‘a psalm of praise with the motive of praise for an action of God. It differs from them in being not diffuse but compact in form and content. It is a poetical construction of three closely knit couplets, each with lines of the same length, and the last with synonymous parallelism’ (pp.215-6). He also adds that the Greek of the final couplet is ‘ambiguous’ and ‘not immediately intelligible’, as this clunky NRSV translation suggests!
Be that as it may, it is worth noting in the present context, what Simeon is not saying. Holding the baby Jesus, he is not asking God to extend his life now that he has seen ‘your salvation’ and ‘the Lord’s Messiah’. Rather he is accepting his own ‘dismissal’, that is death, albeit ‘in peace’. Appropriately we now regularly use this canticle at funerals. A life is now complete and, hopefully, fulfilled. Ever observant and wise, Evans apparently commented later that, as a centenarian, he felt he should no longer be around to eavesdrop on people so much younger than himself. Perhaps he too thought that he should simply be handing-on – after all, his life’s work, Saint Luke, had now been handed on (I was one his students a quarter-of-a-century before its publication who thought it was near to completion even then).
A sense of handing-on is common among many of us who are now grandparents. So it is perhaps not difficult for us to identify with Simeon and Anna. We have been through the time when we might have identified more with the parable of the compassionate father faced with a prodigal child and, then, with sibling jealousy. We have shared Jairus’ terror at the thought — and for some poor parents the reality – of losing a child when ours was young. We have come through all of that and, now, we have the privilege of loving our grandchildren without feeling responsible for them and, as the cliché goes, being able to hand them back. In addition, many of us unhesitatingly prioritise their lives over ours and would, tellingly, regard their death as tragic but our own death as, at most, sad and perhaps not sad at all. We even tell our grandchildren that we hope to die long, long before them and that the world would horribly crowded if the old did not die. If we are faithful, we also tell them that when we die we hope to be with God.
None of this implies that we should neglect the elderly. On the contrary, the Pentateuch/Torah has frequent commands to care for widows, just as Ruth cares for Naomi. Anna and Simeon (if he was indeed old) are clearly treated with respect by Luke. And there are features of our care, or rather lack of care, for the elderly in Britain today that are deeply disturbing. When the full threat of Covid-19 passes, I believe that questions will need to be asked about the quality of care given in now largely privatised care homes. The rates of viral infection within them suggest to me that something is badly amiss. Considerable attention has been given to safe-guarding procedures for the elderly, but perhaps not enough for virus-guarding procedures.
Virtuous compassion and prudential governance for the elderly should surely go hand-in-hand. And, in turn, we who are elderly should, I believe, respond with compassionate and considered restraint – not, for example, demanding ventilators or, eventually, vaccines, that are in short supply, but asking for them to be given first to the young. Covid-19, unwelcome though it is, has much to teach us all about virtuous living and perhaps it reminds us of the importance of mature wisdom.
The theme of wisdom is one that keeps recurring within the Bible. This wisdom is really not about accumulating factual knowledge. In many areas of knowledge – especially mathematics and languages — we are rather better at that when we are young. It is much more to do with seeing things through a much greater perspective – sub specie aeternitatis – in the light of eternity. Tom McLeish’s astonishingly good book Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford: OUP, 2014) depicts this so well in his meditation upon Job:
The message of Job is that chaos is part of the fruitfulness of creation; we cannot hope to control it any more than we can bridle Leviathan, but by understanding we might channel it. Indeed new structures can arise when we do – the ‘beginning of wisdom’ is not to double-lock the casket of our ignorance, but to ‘seek the fear of the Lord’, where this is understood to be a participation in a creator’s deep insight into the structure of what he has made… situating our science and technology within a story of participative healing (p.256).
Covid-19 – whether it is a product of human carelessness or simply a spontaneous by-product of a fecund world that evolves through bacteria and, perhaps, even viruses – has undoubtedly created world-wide chaos in 2020 and maybe beyond. Yet our elderly responses to Covid-19 can indeed be virtuous, altruistic and a part of participative healing. The wisdom of the mature Job, especially in chapters 28 and 38 following, still resonates, concluding with the declaration: ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’ (42.3). Being faithful in a context of (Covid-19) chaos and uncertainty might just be the most virtuous and helpful way that the elderly can live.