Bishop Richard's Weekly Video Message - Transcript 08/07/21

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.  This week the government has announced the end of most of the COVID restrictions on July 19th.  It looks like we are going to be able to sing in church again, which will be lovely. However, the reactions to the announcement show that people are still very divided about the future. Those who are clinically vulnerable, even having been jabbed, are understandably nervous about the inevitable increase in infection – the so called exit wave.  Others, particularly younger people and those whose businesses are on the brink of bankruptcy are much more gung ho, and can’t wait to see the end of them.  The decision in the end is about balancing risk, but it sounds extremely callous when talk turns to the number of deaths we can live with. Tell that to those who have lost loved ones over the last 18 months.  

One of the most controversial aspects is the mask issue.  If it becomes a matter of choice, how should we as Christians make that choice? Is there a specific ought from the gospels? There is no verse that says, ‘in the event of a pandemic, you should follow government advice and wear a mask.’ That’s the same for many ethical choices. We need to take principles from scripture and our tradition of ethical decision making and apply them to this new context. 

So, I thought I’d try to do that and show my working – something my maths teacher always told me to do if I wanted maximum marks. 

Before I get to the issue itself, its important to lay some ground rules for the discussion.  Firstly, in terms of tone.  James 1: 19 says, “take note of this; everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.’ So, I know I need to treat others with respect, listen to try to understand where they are coming from and not get cross if people disagree with me. I need to avoid the easy caricature and the construction of straw men. Social media warriors take note! 

Secondly, there is something about writing off people on the basis of their beliefs, the ad hominem arguments we descend into when we know we’re in the wrong. Paul in his letter to the Romans advised them on whether it was right for Christians to eat meat that had been used as offerings to pagan idols. His feeling was that since idols were figments of human imagination it didn’t really matter.  None the less, he said, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.  The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not and vice versa.” I think Jesus was driving at something similar when he said the person who calls his brother raca was in danger of the fires of hell. Raca is a fairly untranslatable expletive, but is not the word it’s the complete writing off of the person that he has in view.  

With those in the background we can look at the issue itself. It seems to me this is a straightforward application of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbours as ourselves.  The science tells us that if we wear masks, it is not for our benefit but for the benefit of others.  If we unwittingly have the virus, masks do a very good job of preventing it being passed on. I’m not sure there is much more to be said! Jesus told us that love is the basis of all ethical decisions. Wearing masks in places of risk is almost certainly the most loving thing to do. QED! But alongside that, the first two principles I outlined should make us wary of judging others who don’t – for which they may have very good health reasons.  

As I say that, I need to be attentive to my heart’s response to this.  I notice within myself a strong libertarian streak: a wariness about government overreach. But the truth is closer to ‘I’m rather stubborn and I don’t like being told what to do!’ David Watson a great pioneer of renewal in the church of England who died too young of cancer, memorably said in a sermon, I have a few weeks left to live, because one of the cells in my body decided to go its own way.” We accept boundaries on our freedom all the time.  I accept speed limits as a good thing.  I could drive my motorbike at 60 mph through the centre of Hereford, but I’d probably kill someone. The root of sin is an unbridled autonomy that makes decisions on the basis of what feels good to me in the moment rather than in reference to the needs of others. St. Augustine did say the root of good ethics was to love God and do what you like. But he envisaged that real love of God would issue in loving actions towards other people. I think we should ask serious questions about the extent to which government has a right to regulate people’s lives.  Jesus did say, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is Gods. But when it comes to mask wearing, I think the libertarian arguments are simply misplaced. Love your neighbour as yourself, to me has a fairly clear application in this case. Until we really move to a position of herd immunity, I shall go on wearing mine in places where there’s a risk.  

However, finally, if you catch me not wearing one, in a place you think I should, that will not be hypocrisy – merely I have a head like a sieve, and I’ve left it at home by mistake – to which I refer you back to principles 1 and 2.