COVID Lessons for the Church
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
In many nations the COVID-19 pandemic has passed the crisis stage, at least for now (this post was drafted in late June 2021). Society is going about business as usual with just a few limitations still in place, and so is the church. (Many liturgical churches, for example, now conduct normal worship services, but communion is still restricted to a wafer only — there is no common cup of wine.) This is not to say that COVID is behind us for good — the rate at which new variants are developing is an on-going concern, the Olympics in Japan will be spectator-free, and far too many people are refusing to take simple precautions that will protect themselves and their neighbors. In other words, there is always a chance that the disease will return. But, for now, we seem to be past the crisis point.
So how did the church respond, and what was its message during this difficult time?
In many ways the church responded well. Pastors quickly learned how to preach and communicate with modern technology, on-line meetings provided a much-needed sense of community, and the care shown in protecting the vulnerable sent an important message.
However, at a more basic level the church’s response was something of a let-down. In his post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church, Ugo Bardi says,
. . . some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody.
Bardi is, one hopes, exaggerating to make his point. Nevertheless, what he says is mostly true — by and large the church has responded to the crisis in a responsible manner, but so have many secular organizations. The church had nothing special to say and its leaders meekly accepted their subservient status to the secular authorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as being the precursor to something much more serious: the impact of climate change. As global temperatures continue to increase crops will fail, sea levels will rise and millions (possibly billions) of people will be displaced. Is it possible that the church will develop a response to climate change that is special, and that is not just a repeat of what the secular authorities are saying?
In one important respect the pandemic and climate change differ. Almost as soon as the disease started its spread pharmaceutical companies around the world were developing vaccines against the disease. And they were successful. Although the political and social aspects of the distribution of the vaccines were often handled ineptly the technical response was good — science triumphed once again, and religion followed along.
With regard to climate change there is no single technical solution — no vaccination that will allow us to resume our current, energy-profligate lifestyle. The fact that so many options as a replacement for crude oil are being discussed — solar panels, Gen IV nuclear, geothermal, hydrogen storage, to name but a few — shows that there is no single solution, no easy or simple way forward. Science and technology have reached a limit. It is this limit, this inability to “solve” climate change that presents an opportunity for the church to provide leadership.