March 16, 2020

A Brief Reflection on Coronavirus

Canon Simon Butler

This sermon was unusual as it became an interactive discussion about how we can respond locally to the Coronavirus pandemic, and was unprepared. The text below is an introductory section on making sense and responding to the situation in a Christian way.


Today’s sermon is going to be a little different. First, a brief reflection on our current situation and then a conversation about how we can respond. Yes, we are going to talk to one another this morning!

Some reflection. On Tuesday two people asked me this question: “Why is Coronavirus happening to us?” I was surprised at the question, so I’ve been pondering it this week. I have two answers.

The first comes from my almost forgotten degree in Biochemistry some 37 years go. And that answer is this: we have been fortunate not have experienced something sooner. This is the first global pandemic has come to Britain since the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. That, in virology terms, is an incredibly long time to escape a genuinely dangerous viral mutation. We have been fortunate to have got away with that long, because viruses are the most successful organisms on the planet We have been lucky.

But the second response is more a “Why” in terms of meaning or self-questioning. Why is it happening to us? And now. And, to respond to that, I came across this reflection from C.S. Lewis earlier this week. Lewis wrote an article called “Living in the Atomic Age” for a book of journalistic essays in 1948. As I read this to you, I would like you to substitute the words “atomic bomb” for “coronavirus.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors””anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things””praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts””not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

So, brothers and sisters, let us take all necessary precautions in the coming weeks, but let us not be as “the world” is (to use that concept in the sense St John uses it in his gospel). If you want to know what “the world” does when faced with one further way of dying, go to a supermarket after church and and see how people are behaving. It reveals a lot.

No. Let us not change our fundamental way of living. Let us do what Christians do – pray, worship (hopefully but not necessarily together), serve our neighbours and live our lives as much and as fully as we can in the coming weeks. There are things that we have forgotten how to do that the time indoors may give us (if we end up indoors); read those books, say those prayers, check in on someone you know.

That’s how we can respond humanly and Christianly to coronavirus.

And now to the practical thing, which I would like us to have a discussion about this morning.

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