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Not-Knowing and the New Not-Normal: Seeking Direction for the Long-Haul

The Revd Dr Kathryn Pritchard
A long and winding road.

A long and winding road. Image: PavelChatterjee, CC BY-SA 4.0

Part Four of our series “Making sense of coronavirus with reason and faith.”

With quaintly formal requests to ‘Raise a blue hand please’ and ‘unmute yourself’, this year’s ‘unofficial’ General Synod Zoom meeting in July was woven through with a sense of the unfamiliar. This was not just in terms of the technology. Anglican Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, speaking on behalf of the Church of England’s Covid-19 Recovery Group, talked of the uncharted territory we are entering. She asked for patience and forgiveness to be extended, as difficult and imperfect decisions were made by senior church leaders. Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, remarked “… if anyone has the slightest semblance of wisdom, the answer to most questions would be ‘I don’t know.’”

Far from a dereliction of duty, acknowledging the new ‘not knowing’ is the only possible starting point for leadership at this time. In much of the UK we are emerging from an early adrenaline-fuelled response to the immediate crisis and onto an uncertain path. It is difficult to describe the route ahead in any sense as ‘the new normal’, with the stability that phrase suggests. The research continues apace, and early findings and new theories will overtake any articles written at this time.

In how many ways is Covid-19 transmitted? Do we wash our groceries and quarantine our post? Some scientists argue ‘probably not’ because tests on surfaces have been carried out with artificially high concentrations of the virus. However, infection in this way remains a possibility. Is herd immunity attainable? Possibly not, at least in the way it was originally hoped. Dr Katie Doores from King’s College London has led a widely publicised study that suggests that antibody levels in Covid-19 survivors reduce with time. On the other hand, recent research also suggests — more encouragingly — that a percentage of the uninfected population has naturally inbuilt T-Cell immunity. At the time of writing the UK is anticipating further local lockdowns and there is talk of new waves or a spike; however, Professor Tim Spector, epidemiologist at King’s College London, told Radio 4’s Today programme that what we are observing may be ripples due to premature easing of lockdown, and not signs of a new spike.

This is not a linear story or process, as the ever-changing headlines demonstrate. Resilience theory builds on the study of adversity and disaster and is concerned with the impact of adverse life experiences on people. A team at a Swedish university has proposed a model of resilience that takes into account high levels of complexity. They argue that resilience requires flexible goal setting and an approach which is based on core values. A large-scale example of this might be a commitment to equity in the availability of healthcare resources, alongside the goal — with ongoing adjustments — of flattening the curve of the virus.

Now, important societal values have come to the fore during the early months of the pandemic. There has been much talk of ‘the things that matter’. This awareness must have supported the public effort to contribute to flattening the curve of the virus. We are also at the outer limits of our current wisdom. As the church we must dig deeper. We have a vast reservoir of resources and relationships to bring to this effort. Alongside looking to the work of the scientific community at this time, the church can draw on its practices and history as a community of faith.

Looking to the New Testament, for instance, some of Paul’s letters to early church communities provide ‘worked-out’ case studies of good practice and ‘things that matter’ in a time of flux. The Book of Romans, his letter to an early church community in crisis, goes back to basics, with love of neighbour the deciding factor. Paul provides practical advice to resolve conflicting cultural priorities and builds this on the value of attentiveness to the other, rather than rejection of difference. The parallels with our contemporary situation are too many to outline — but to state what might appear to be obvious, the way we work together during the crisis might be the most important determinant of the quality of decisions we make, the goal posts we reach and the sustainability of our journey.

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