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On Epidemics and the Church: A Letter from Europe

By Mark Edington

When I last returned to the United States in early February, a television crew was lying in wait just outside the doors leading from the baggage claim — looking for arriving passengers to talk to. A reporter jutted a microphone at me, and asked:

“Where did you travel from?”

“Well, Paris,” I replied.

“Did anyone screen you for the coronavirus?”

“As a matter of fact, no. No one did.”

“Are you worried about coronavirus?”

“No, not especially.”

And with that, she looked for another, more willing participant in her planned story.

That was now nearly a month ago — a week after the first diagnosis of the virus had appeared in Italy, and a week before the first diagnosis was made in France. As I write this, nearly six thousand cases have appeared in Italy, and nearly a thousand in France; nearly 250 deaths associated with the disease have been recorded in these countries. Yes, I’m worried about the coronavirus.

The church is not without some experience of epidemics in Europe, of course. Richard Palmer, in his 1978 University of Kent doctoral dissertation, “The Control of Plague in Venice and Northern Italy, 1348–1600,” has shown that, while often contending for power, state and church had largely harmonious approaches to the onset of plague in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy—not least because the leaders of civil society still saw the welfare of the polis as dependent on God’s favor.

But the church’s role in the midst of that public health crisis extended in two other directions.

One was to explain God’s purposes in setting loose in the world the mysterious forces that caused the miseries of the illness, death, and precarity of the plague. Centuries before the scientific disputes that yielded the germ theory of disease in the late 1800s, the severity and seeming randomness of epidemics — befalling without discrimination rich and poor, righteous and unrighteous — was seen through the lens of the biblical accounts of plagues as judgment.

The egalitarian nature of susceptibility to the disease —notwithstanding the ability of the wealthy to separate themselves from the cities, the conceit behind Bocaccio’s Decameron—pushed against ascribing responsibility to any one population of people — whether a town, region, profession, or other community. And the relatively close relationship between state and church at the earliest moment of the emergence of the nation-state made the institutional church hesitant to portray the civil authorities in the role of Pharaoh.

Thus the critique offered by the church, the lesson to be found in the evident punishment of disease, had to be generalized. In Italy, it fell upon the vices of society generally — excoriating the profanation of churches, prostitution, sodomy, excessive and conspicuous consumption, licentiousness in monasteries and convents, and the always handy catch-all category of heresy (Palmer, 292).

The second direction was to extend compassionate care to those affected by the disease —whether the dying or the bereaved. Church and state together worked to establish and sustain institutions that served the most vulnerable. Servants of the church cared for the stricken and supported families robbed of both livelihoods and life. Some, like Bernardino of Siena, worked in hospitals providing care directly to those afflicted, at great personal risk.

Another form of the church’s care was the encouragement of cults of saints who were felt to intercede on behalf of victims of plague. It’s no coincidence that imagery of Saint Sebastian became a frequent theme for artists in the decades affected by plague; the arrow-pierced body of the martyr was connected in the early modern mind to the imagery of Apollo loosing plagues on earth in the pages of the Æneid. Another, equally devoted cult grew up around Saint Roch (Rocco), who had himself contracted the plague while ministering to those suffering from it.

Things have changed in five hundred years. We do not teach (although, yes, some do) that the present epidemic is an expression of divine wrath. We do seek to provide support and comfort to those affected by the illness — whether directly, as a family member, or as someone whose economic security has been damaged by the wider implications of this moment. We do this in more direct ways, however. (We have very few churches named after Saint Sebastian or Saint Rocco.)

More directly, church and state no longer contend for power in the civil realm; civil authority now strictly confines the role and work of the church to a narrow focus. If the coronavirus has made anything clear — and there is little it has — the relationship of faith communities to secular state authority has come forward in high relief.

I write this just after having had to send a message to our congregations in Italy asking them to comply with the order of the Italian government to suspend all services of worship until at least April 3. There was no need for me to send a note to our congregations in Belgium; the government there simply shut them down directly. The French government has restricted gatherings to fewer than 100 people; we expect more even more stringent measures to be announced this week.

Meanwhile, our congregation in Switzerland is being required to take note of who is in attendance at any given worship service — putatively so that a potential outbreak could be traced back to its source. But the very idea of people having to surrender their anonymity to take part in the gathering of a community of conscience may be the most chilling exercise of civil authority yet in this moment of emergency.

What is striking about all of these cases, and those doubtless coming in the other nations of Europe where we are present, is that the reach of civil authority extends to the power to close houses of worship. I am a new bishop, but realizing that our church in Europe exists under conditions in which even that degree of agency and autonomy is denied to us already stands as the lowest moment of my ministry. It will become lower when these restrictions extend—as it now appears nearly certain they will—beyond Easter.

Seen from the perspective of the United States, it’s difficult to imagine such an intrusive measure being enacted against faith communities. At the very least, the separation clause of the First Amendment is generally understood as a mutual non-interference pact between the power of the state and the work and witness of the church. It is hard to credit the idea of the federal government closing churches by decree, even as the emergency has unfolded in America.

But as Episcopal communities in Europe, our churches — relatively recent arrivals, having no part in the history of religion there — confront a very different reality. In some countries, where the state determines what is and what is not a church, our parishes and missions don’t qualify — and must be incorporated as clubs. In others, an association organized as a church is permitted to raise funds for one purpose only — the hosting of public worship. Serving the least and the last is seen as the prerogative of the state; there is too great a risk, or so it is thought, that the church would proselytize those it seeks to help. (We find ways around this.)

What emerges from the present moment of acute anxiety here is a strong cultural signal from the state authorities to the populace, and to our own people, about the rightful place of the church in their lives. On this view, the church—or belief generally—is best regarded as something peripheral and non-essential. In all cases it is to be understood as something that is permitted to proclaim its message and serve in Christ’s name only by leave of, and in ways circumscribed by, the civil authority. It certainly is not, in a moment of crisis and uncertainty, an institution to be regarded as an independent source of assurance or assistance.

If nothing else, the pandemic — as the WHO has now labeled COVID-19 — will test our resolve, our resilience, and our resourcefulness as voices of calm and certainty in a moment edging disturbingly toward mass hysteria. Proclaiming as we do the God who embraces all of life and death, all of health and healing, we will continue to shape our advice and public pronouncements around the best possible science, while accepting and addressing the deep and real fears of our people and the communities we serve. And if more of the civil authorities in the nations in which we operate move to demand we close, we will find ways of gathering our people and offering our praise — remembering always that the first words to the shepherds on the hillside and the first words to Mary in the garden were, “Do not be afraid.” We hear those words now, not as comfort, but as command; and we shall, by God’s grace, find the courage to let them lead us.

Mark Edington is the bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.


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