‘A Coronavirus Catechism’

Tracy Niven
Sunday 14 June 2020

Good morning,

Instead of a service this Sunday, I’ve produced a catechism.  Churches have written catechisms for centuries to teach the faith, including the Heidelberg Catechism, Larger and Shorter Catechisms associated with the Westminster Confession, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Today’s catechism claims no such authority.  Instead, in question and answer form, it surveys our experience of the coronavirus, in the Chaplaincy, University, country and world, and tries to draw a few strands of thinking together.  I hope you find it a stimulating way to reflect on what we are going through.  Responses welcome – to me at dgm21@st-andrews.ac.uk.  This will be the final Sunday Companionship email/blogpost from me for a while, as I’ll be beginning an eight-week period of summer leave from this coming Saturday 20 June.  More on that later this week.

A Coronavirus Catechism

Where to start?
It all seemed so far away, in China, and not even a part of China much known outside China.  It sounded a bit like SARS which everyone was worried about but didn’t somehow affect us in Britain.  It would pass as that passed, wouldn’t it?

When did it start to feel different?
Maybe when students returned from the Christmas vacation.  Quite a number of Chinese students self-isolated for a while upon returning to St Andrews.

Yes, it’s hard to believe but we barely used the word before.  It meant they stayed in their room in their hall of residence, and meals were brought to them.

What was it like being a Chinese student then?
Not always easy.  Some were criticised for being outdoors. Other students, not from China, were blamed for the virus by passers-by.  Some couldn’t return for funerals of family members.

What did returning students from China think of our approach in Scotland?
So casual.  How can you be so casual?

What did we think of that criticism?
Why are they worried?  We’re not like Wuhan.

Do we realise now how naïve we were then?
I think so, don’t you?

When did it cross our minds that this was not like SARS?
When they closed ten towns in Northern Italy.  A European country, not far from us, which many of us have visited.  A region with Milan, Lake Como, Verona, Bologna, Padova, Venice.  And then the first images to emerge from Italian hospitals: patients everywhere; gowns, masks and visors; exhausted doctors too tired not to tell the truth – that this was overwhelming.

How did we notice in the University?
In meetings, key people explored scenarios.  What they said was serious.  But it was their tone which stays in the memory – a slight irritation with anyone who didn’t realise what was happening, and that it was huge.  Senior people started postponing non-Covid commitments.

Yet life went on?
Yes, right up to the last minute.  The Chaplaincy, for example, hosted a conference for honorary chaplains from across Scotland on Thursday 12 March.  Only 3 out of about 30 pulled out citing coronavirus concerns.

But it still all seemed to change fast?
It sure did.  On the afternoon of Friday 13 March, the final day of term before the Spring Vacation, there were emails in succession cancelling future programmes from the Music Centre, the Wardlaw Museum, Development, James Gregory Lectures, and the Byre Theatre.  In the midst of these dominos toppling, the Principal wrote to say that a student had tested positive for Covid-19, and was recovering while self-isolating.  There was a concert that evening in St Salvator’s Chapel, given by the Madrigal Group.  There was a sense that night that it would be the last public event in the chapel for some time.  And indeed, it was the last, some three months ago at the time of writing.

What did the Madrigal Group sing?
Some wonderful music, including their signature piece, Frobisher Bay, with these words which seemed so apt for how we were beginning to feel, that in the middle of March we were returning to winter, with its sense of separation:

Cold is the arctic sea
Far are your arms from me
Long will this winter be
Frozen in Frobisher Bay
Frozen in Frobisher Bay

How did the Chaplaincy respond?
By cancelling chapel services.  By moving discussion groups online.  Initially, by making the prayer rooms in Mansefield and St Salvator’s Chapel open for private prayer.  But within a day or two, even that was untenable – buildings had to close.  My last face-to-face meeting with a student was a hospital visit on 20 March – but there have been scores since via Teams.  And we wrote – a Companionship email/blogpost a day from Sunday 15 March till the end of May, and now from time to time.

Why Companionship?
We knew already of self-isolation.  But now it was clear from instructions by the Scottish and British governments that isolation was the key policy to suppress the spread of the virus.  Physical distancing for all; staying at home all the time for many, cocooning, as it’s called in Ireland.  Isolation is something you could say the Chaplaincy exists to counteract: bringing people together for worship; uniting couples in marriage; hosting discussions in cat-filled sitting-rooms; supporting encounters between people of different faiths, cultures, traditions and philosophies of life; befriending international students; offering time and presence to people isolated from others, often from mental health problems.  Well, if physical isolation was the only possible way to suppress the virus spreading, we would offer the opposite of isolation – companionship.

Just emails?
After one written “chapel” service with youtube links to bells, hymns and anthems, we thought we could do more to bring people together online.  And so our zoomunity began (before the University instructed us to avoid the platform).  We gathered in our homes by candlelight on Thursday evenings, to say and sing the ancient rite of Compline, which emerged from monastic communities, isolated from the world.  We gathered in our homes on Sunday mornings, to worship in the midst of our contemporary situation, preachers, readers, pianists, choristers, students, staff, graduates and friends taking part from across the world.  The contributions of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, recorded alone but sewn together by Claire the Director of Chapel Music, were imaginative, skilful and beautiful.  Here are their wonderful videos:

Weelkes, Hosanna to the Son of David https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofStAndrewsMusicCentre/videos/617534575495323/

Handel, Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jd9OG2NWMkg

Walford Davies, Psalm 23: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofStAndrewsMusicCentre/videos/1630960747052704/

Lassus, Surrexit Pastor Bonus: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofStAndrewsMusicCentre/videos/563628404289290/

Stanford, Coelos Ascendit Hodie: https://www.facebook.com/UniversityofStAndrewsMusicCentre/videos/286437825818320/

Anything more than emails and services?
Yes – listening to people in the University.  So many fears – of becoming ill, of contaminating someone vulnerable, of being unable to work, of furlough and redundancy, of not being able to work at full capacity with children at home, and waking from strange dreams.  Fears of returning to the workplace, and what it will be like, 9000 students and 3000 staff two metres apart from each other.  Troubles cooped up at home.  Exhaustion having to work so fast to make changes to deal with the reality.  Plus all the other stuff doesn’t go away – anxiety, unhappy relationships, illness, cancer, death.

Yes, of course, fear of death and dying is fundamental to human existence.  But modern life has been so extraordinarily successful in delaying death for most people until old age.  Low rates of infant mortality, or death from infection or disease at a young age.  The news has always brought death to our attention, but usually from accidents, natural disasters, violence or war.  This period has been different: daily media briefings with numbers dying in Scotland and the UK; images of hospital intensive care units; reports of mortuaries overwhelmed in Spain, New York and elsewhere.  For many of us, we have been forced to think as never before of our own mortality and of those whom we love.

Many have died, haven’t they?
Yes, and whether Coronavirus Covid-19 is on the death certificate or not, they are all connected in some way.  People not having as many visitors as usual, are not going out as before.  People unable to visit others in hospital.  Decisions about where treatment will take place – or not.  Reduced medical services.  A reluctance to bother the practice.  Farewells by phone, unable to be there, and hold their hand, and kiss their cheek.

Funerals continued, didn’t they?
Yes, reduced to close family.  Strange, quiet, missing that sense of strength through a large community.  And yet, simplified to partners, wives and husbands, sisters and brothers, daughters, sons and grandchildren, these funerals have had a beauty to them.  Death is, if nothing else, a letting go.  And these funerals have shown the truth of that, with circles of friends, colleagues and acquaintances already let go, and only the close family accompanying the body in the final rituals.

Where has God been in these days?
I hope: in the zoomunity, in appointments with students and staff on Teams, in phone calls and chance encounters on the East Sands, in the tears and the funerals.

Only in the holy stuff?
No – if ever there was a time to distance ourselves from what Gerard Hughes SJ calls “split spirituality”, this is it.  I hope that God has been in the hospitals and the care homes, the warehouses and supermarkets, the TV studios and the chemists, and wherever people have been committed to others in their time, presence and actions.

God on the frontline?
Yes, and frontline workers being Christ-like.  Not that they would all appreciate the comparison.  But the comparison informed this recasting of the 23rd Psalm:

  1. The Lord is my frontline worker; my needs will be looked after.
  2. He delivers food, and serves me in the supermarket:
    she ensures that my home has clean water and a steady power-supply.
  3. She treats me and nurses me when I am ill:
    he drives public transport; he cleans before and behind me.
  4. Even though I face a disease without cure, which may lead to death, I will fear no evil:
    for you are with me; your open pharmacy, your patrol car and counsellors they comfort me.
  5. You lay out rules for my safety in the presence of an unseen enemy:
    you re-supply soap and sanitiser; my cupboards overflow.
  6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
    and I shall dwell, at home and online, in the presence of the Lord for ever.

(A cheerful sign on the Canongate.)

What did religious types debate?
Could holy communion be shared online?

This was the most important issue the church faced?!?
No – but it was an urgent question for many.

And can communion be shared online?
Depends who you ask.  Those who have shared and received communion online have found it profoundly moving, an experience of the close presence of the risen Jesus in their lives, and their communion with others, in a time of physical distancing.  As a Church of Scotland minister, I was able to conduct services of communion online.

Hang on – aren’t you the Convener of the Theological Forum that advised the Church on this?
Er – yes.

So you make the rules?
Contribute to them, perhaps – look it’s more complicated than that.  Don’t you also want to know what else the theologians debated?

Go on then.
The meaning of the coronavirus.

As in – Does the coronavirus teach us something specifically about God’s relationship to the world?

And what do the theologians say?
Apart from the cranks who see it as a particular divine judgment?

Well, mostly they see it is confirmation if ever it were needed that this world is not the finished article.  In other words, creation is prey to suffering and sorrow alongside sin.  This is part of the way things are, in biological processes of evolution by natural selection.  Redemption is underway, but is not complete.  The coronavirus joins countless other diseases and natural phenomena which cause suffering, pain and death.

Is that it?  Life is hard, and then you…
No, there is more to a response informed by faith.  There are our acts of love towards those affected.  Our questioning of structures which condition the spread and seriousness of the disease.  Our work for a world marked by compassion, justice and decency.  And our commitment to education, science and medicine in responding to Covid-19.

Aren’t these responses shared by people of different philosophies of life?

Does the Christian faith offer anything unique here?
Yes – but not in being more virtuous, or more committed, or more loving, or more persistent in our campaigning.  But Christians see God as the hungry, the poor, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned.  That may not be unique, but it is the hallmark of how Christians see their fellow human beings.  Plus Christians hope that fulfilment is coming.

Pie in the sky?
Hope not – and perhaps there are signs of fulfilment in the here and now.

Such as?
Those frontline workers.  The renewed sense that justice needs to come for those particularly affected – the poor, and people who are black and from ethnic minorities.  A palpable sense of kindness and compassion.  And in new perspectives which have emerged in lockdown.

You can’t mean the hoarding, the suspicions, the calling the police about a neighbour’s activity?
No, not humanity at its best.  But that is not the worst we can do either – after all, we’ve been under a huge amount of strain.  A couple of extra packets of penne is not that bad.

So what do you mean by new perspectives?
A welcoming of time, to walk (aided by the sunniest spring in living memory), to see bulbs and blossoms, to hear birdsong, to cook, to bake, to spend time with family in a household, or on the phone, to cuddle up with pets, to be still, to read, to pray.  A recognition that so much of life which we rush to experience can be let go, in some cases temporarily, in others permanently.  Finding out what it’s like not to have a haircut or colour treatment for three months.  Virtual coffee mornings, drinks on Fridays, dinner parties.  Online bridge.  A renewed emphasis on companionship.

But much has been lost, surely?
Of course – we’ve missed Passover with family, Easter in the Chapel, field trips, Beltane, May Dip, Ramadan as a community and its ending with Eid, soakings at the close of a degree.  From a week on Monday we should have been embarking on nine graduation ceremonies.  Weddings have been postponed; birthday parties converted into walks followed by a takeaway; no East Neuk Festival, no Edinburgh Festival, no Wimbledon, no Olympics, and, on the silver linings principle, no Love Island.  Many people are finding it harder and harder to be isolated – people who live alone, and people who don’t – in different ways.  It’s been lonely for many.  It’s still a long time for those cocooning.  We’re all probably holidaying at home, which may not feel that special compared to the past three months.  We would love to visit family, and it still doesn’t seem possible.  And it’s hard to imagine Freshers Week without events involving close physical proximity.

You mean the Bop?
Of course I mean the Bop [St Andrews lingo for nightclub-esque disco at the Union.].  What did you think I meant?

(Final year students on the pier following exams.)

How will the University recover?
A large number of staff, academics and members of professional service units, have been working immensely hard to ensure that students have been taught, examined, graded, that they can pass to their next year, or have their degree conferred.  Others have been looking after students in residences, keeping buildings safe and maintained, and thinking about how to re-open them.  Some have been doing research on Covid-19.  Other colleagues have been encouraging people across to world to begin new degrees in St Andrews next academic year.  People in charge of finances have dealt with numbers they never thought they’d see diving down a balance-sheet like this.  And all of this has to be communicated using technology which we rely on as never before.  Indeed every academic school and service unit has been working in novel, imaginative and conscientious ways to support education and research here.  It’s been tiring, and sometimes tearful.  But education, research and the formation of young people are worthwhile causes, and essential to the good of society.  The values which sustained the University over 600 years are a sure guide in this uncertain future.

What of the other losses in society as a whole?
Hard to comprehend how deep this goes – businesses, present and future livelihoods, artistic endeavours, schooling, mental health and so much more.  It’s really not clear if, when and how we will “bounce back.”

Do we want to return to normal?
Just as we adjusted to the constraints on public life remarkably fast, we may well adjust to returning to workplaces, eating-places, and public venues without too much difficulty.  Some have coped with returning to golf courses, tennis courts, fishing lochs and sailing boats without marked levels of stress.  But the old hectic life was changing our climate so fast, driving temperatures up, increasing extreme weather, storms and fires, droughts and humidity.  This could be an opportunity to ask what really matters.

What values should guide our post-Covid society?
Could I suggest – not getting and spending.  But giving, caring, educating, respecting and trusting.

And so can we be selective, as we leave lockdown, in what we take up again?
You tell me – can we?  Will we?

Where to end?
We’re not at the end.  The virus continues to spread, not only in a reduced way in Britain, but significantly in South America, India, Russia and elsewhere.  There may be better treatments, and a vaccine in the future.  But equally, there may be further pandemics of yet to emerge viruses and diseases.  Fears may well persist.  But time will pass, and memories will fade.  New stories will edge Covid out from the headlines, and we’ll start to forget its impact on everything.  That’s a form of healing too.  People of faith will continue to hope that this world is accompanied, in all our pain and misplaced priorities.  And that we are called to bear witness to love, faithfulness and generosity.


Share this story

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.