Like everyone else, I can't think of any moment in my lifetime – or any point in world history – when we have found ourselves in such a crisis. No doubt the world has in fact faced crises like the present one, but no-one could see them the way that we can today. Someone somewhere said a few years ago that the 21st century would start the Information Age. Due to that connectedness, this is the generation that can see for the first time how quickly a serious virus can spread, take precautions, and learn lessons from other countries, all in real time.
This has led to strategic challenges that we only usually face from our sofas in disaster movies. But as I grew up, global threats were real enough. We often quietly wondered if everything would finish in an exchange of hydrogen bombs. We're not quite finished with that problem either, although we've managed to push it to the back of our minds, for the time being.
But here we are now, in a real worldwide crisis. From one point of view, it is a comparatively gentle foretaste of what could happen worldwide if we chose deliberately or stumbled by accident into another world war. Perhaps a better what-if is to imagine what Ebola might do to the world's population if it had not been contained by herculean efforts on the part of many countries, especially in Africa. People in the DRC still wash their hands frequently, in spite of everything else they presently must undergo.
COVID-19 is undoubtedly a tragedy, taking place among us right now, for many people and their loved ones, young, old, vulnerable, healthy. But compared to the deaths caused every year by malaria or just boring old influenza, COVID-19 is not the biggest problem we have to face worldwide as a generation. It is nonetheless a sobering lesson that isn't over yet.
It has temporarily changed the way we do several things that we normally take for granted. It means I now never use my car (I have used it once during the lockdown, to go to the BBC in Glasgow to film Reflections from the Quay
with Moderator Colin Sinclair); the meetings haven't stopped, but I do them all online; I celebrate Mass on a Sunday from the chapel in my residence in Edinburgh. It's a space which seats a dozen people, but which can now get over 7,000 views, and not just by people in my own archdiocese. Incidentally, I'm also getting reacquainted with the arcana of housekeeping and which bins go out when, cleaning cookers, ironing bedsheets, etc. And if they don't open up the barbers soon, we're all going to end up like refugees from 1975. Not a great look…
It's also made us appreciate family and friends much more. Folk I've not heard from for ages, all over the world, are on the phone. I find myself every day phoning the clergy of my diocese, not just to make sure they're well, but also to hear about how they're reaching out to their people – some of them in new and imaginative ways, and some of them bravely – in spite of the severe lack of PPE. They're stepping up, and I'm proud of how they're continuing to work at post, even if we cannot do the one thing a church does by definition: assemble for worship, especially for the Sunday eucharist. So, we're all learning a few useful lessons, including what really is important to us. As human beings we are designed to cooperate. Just as natural as our opposable thumbs and our extraordinarily large brains, we function best when we cooperate with each other.
In these strange times, I find myself working in new ways, and quite closely, with the leaders of the churches, and in particular with those of the Church of Scotland and the Episcopal Church. When I returned in 2013 to Scotland after 20 years working abroad, I found how much the Christian communities of the country, those who practise their faith, had become a lot friendlier and a lot closer. To cite just one example, I am invited annually to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and I am welcomed at everything I attend with the utmost cordiality. There is genuine friendship there, it's mutual, and I believe it's growing. In fact, we have been friends for more than a generation.
What I find interesting about the present crisis is how much that friendship is making it easier for us to become a single voice – one compact Christian voice if you will – in the land. Our differences have a lot of historical momentum behind them, but they no longer stop us being good friends.
In these days, the member churches of Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) are in the process of taking ecumenical dialogue in our country towards a new and more flexible chapter, in the shape of a forum, unsurprisingly entitled the Scottish Christian Forum (SCF). The intention is to find a new and more flexible place to discuss the concerns held in common by all Christians in Scotland. The political will to move ahead with this was already there before COVID-19, but even though the ink isn't yet dry on the shape of the SCF, we're already talking to each other regularly and we're already working much more closely.
We're not trying to pretend away our differences; what we're doing instead is recognising each other as sisters and brothers in the Lord and, as such, as friends of particular value. A small example of that was last weekend. Working with the Moderator was a pleasure, but it was also a natural thing to do, as it was simply one more small moment in a year of many moments of friendship.
I for one look forward to seeing friendships like that multiply and grow with all my sisters and brothers in our Scots Christian world.
Leo Cushley is The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh
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