by Simon Tillotson
If there is a God, why did he allow Covid-19?
Thinking back on the last nearly four months since lockdown began (it feels like four years rather than the roughly 110 days as of 12th June when I am writing this) it seems like our whole world has changed forever. Maybe it has. Speaking as – in some people’s eyes, “God’s representative” – as a member of the clergy, I guess you could say I have some explaining to do. I mean, if there is a God, why did he allow it you may ask?
Well I have to inform you first and foremost that I am a middle of the road Anglican. And the good thing about being a middle of the road Anglican is that I am not someone who believes I understand everything in the universe. Nor do I take every verse in the bible literally, though invariably, because of the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the world, many secular people immediately assume I am one of those.
Well I am not. I am comfortable in my doubt and confusion, believing there is a Spirit of Love in the Universe that people are still encountering, believing that Jesus is alive and present among us in a mystical way, believing through the many funerals I take that there is a future eternity beyond this vale of tears, but not being able to marry all this hopeful and confident stuff up with why so much suffering is allowed to happen in the first place.
Actually, if I ever got that point where these things could be reconciled, I would, I think, cease to be a decent, reasonable human being. It is the doubt and the not knowing, but still the trusting and enduring, that makes faith what it is. Faith is about not having complete evidence, but believing and hoping nonetheless. The cold certainty of some religious people, that we must understand and explain all things in order to defend God, is more reminiscent of a cult member than a warm, vulnerable human being which is what I aspire to be. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is an expression of faith, as the theologian Paul Tillich once wrote.
I can say with confidence that aspects of the lockdown have awoken many people to deeper spiritual realities. We have had more time to reflect, more time to escape the ensnaring habit of shopping – unless of course we are addicted to Amazon or Ebay – more time to be with our partners, or on our own. More time to appreciate nature with that fantastic April and May, despite this disappointing and depressing June (so far at least). More time simply to be, and reappraise our overly busy lifestyles. These days have allowed many of us to spiritually breathe for the first time in a long time.
Unfortunately though it is the harder reality which has often dominated. Firstly, feelings of extreme exhaustion and lethargy from having to deal so long with that period of intense fear that we or our loved ones might catch the virus, a fear that is gradually easing I hope. Feelings of exhaustion too from being stuck in the same house (and garden if we are lucky) following roughly the same routine day in day out. Also there are feelings of lethargy from the lack of outside stimuli which even the best box set cannot replace. Sheer exhaustion also from the ongoing endless cycle of deeply depressing news, heightened by the dreadful tragedy of George Floyd and all that has ensued from that.
More seriously still we have all mourned as we have heard about loved ones or friends of loved ones caught up in the terror of Covid-19, and we are all aware that this has not gone away. Our fear may be slightly less for now, but the tiger will be be back I fear. Shockingly, the reality is hitting that if we had followed a stricter lockdown earlier we might be in so much better a place as a country.
Emily Maitlis was entirely right when she said Covid-19 does not treat all people equally. Those living in cramped accommodation without a garden have suffered far more than many in our town who have been fortunate to have outside space to sit in. The vast differences in wealth in our country are mirrored here in Whitstable.
We were right to clap for the NHS, and I admire so many of the people from our own community who serve as doctors and nurses and taxi drivers and postal delivery drivers and care assistants and shop assistants and everyone else who is in the front line. However, I would also like to applaud those who have endured lockdown in cramped, airless accommodation with little room to breathe let alone live. Here the inequalities of lifestyle had profound affects on huge portions of our society, with some in Whitstable finding the lockdown almost as an extended holiday whilst others continue to suffer in extremely challenging living conditions. The vast disparity of experience in the lockdown reflects the vast inequality in our society today.
There are many others I would like to applaud: those who have endured difficult personal relationships without the clear option of escape, at least for the time being; those who are in physical isolation through being on the list of the vulnerable; the many single elderly people I meet through my ministry who found life challenging enough before the lockdown but who have stoically endured even more social isolation since without the benefits of the many clubs and groups which are run in the community, including here at All Saints church hall.
I would also like to applaud those with mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, whose conditions have often been aggravated through this period; also those who are shielding a loved one, who have kept themselves behind closed doors for the love of their spouse or partner. I still speak to people regularly on the phone who have not been out of their home since the 22nd March.
I would also like to applaud Chris Cornell and all the team who did our town proud through providing so much physical and emotional support to the needy at the greatest time of crisis in April and early May. As I have said in my sermons, my overall estimation of us as a society, in terms of generosity of spirit and sensitivity to the needs of others, has largely been enhanced by the way so many responded, and Whitstable was a fine example of this. In spite of many exceptions, I really saw a wonderful side to our country during the pandemic, and I only hope and pray we will continue to see it as lockdown continues to be eased.
So now we come to midsummer. A time to hopefully pause again, to pray for warmer weather, to pray for space to continue reflecting, to pray for grace to withstand whatever comes up in the future. Nobody saw this coming. I pray that one day we will all wake up and realise it is a thing of the past, and that it has disappeared in as hidden a way as it arrived.
So no, I don’t have all the answers, but I am at least heartened that I have seen sides to our humanity that I thought had long been buried by materialism. I still believe that the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, hope, patience, kindness, self-control – far outweighs anything that can be bought either in store or online. I do feel materialism’s grip on our country was released, albeit fleetingly, enabling many to find a deeper and more spiritual pace of life. I still see a place for the church in all this, having previously felt more and more sidelined by our increasingly atheistic culture. In fact in my 26 years of ministry as a member of the clergy, never have I found the offerings of faith to have such relevance as during the lockdown.
However, none of these positives compare to the horror of a loved one losing their partner, parent, sister or brother to Covid-19. Therefore to conclude, despite the positives that have come out, I wish to God this had never happened in the first place, and I pray we will be back to normal as soon as possible.
Simon Tillotson grew up in Cambridge and has a degree in English Literature from London University and one in Theology from Cambridge University where he trained to be an Anglican vicar. Before his calling to the ministry he worked for Simon Hughes, MP for Bermondsey in his constituency office, and also for six months as an auxiliary nurse in Jerusalem. Ordained in 1994, Simon has served in parishes in Paddock Wood, and Aylesford in Kent and also in Ormskirk in West Lancashire. He has been in Whitstable since 2007 – a place he has loved from the start. In fact he used to come to parties in a beach hut in Whitstable in the early 1990s as his school friend owned a hut here, never expecting to make the transition from partygoer to priest. Also a singer songwriter, Simon works in a Team of clergy here in Whistable which is still fairly unusual, meaning there is a wider single parish of Whitstable with five Church of England churches working together.
Simon’s blog and other material can be found under Spiriptual Resources of All Saints church website www.allsaintswhitstable.org
Simon’s songs can be found at www.cuddenpointmusic.co.uk and on Itunes and Spotify.
All Saints church, CT5 1PG, is available for private prayer or reflection on Mondays to Saturdays from 10am to 12 noon and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2pm to 4pm and Fridays from 1.30pm to 3.30pm from Monday 15th June. St Peter’s church is open from 10am to 12 noon on Tuesday and Friday mornings.
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