Coronavirus and Religion update – 22 April

By Andrew Brown, 22 April 2020

A Ramadan like none before

Ramadan starts either today or tomorrow, depending on the phases of the moon, but this year’s Muslim season of fast and feasting will be unprecedented. The fasting will proceed as usual, but there will be no iftar communal meals at sundown, as has always been the case before. Nor will there be the great celebrations of Eid-al-Fitr at the end of the period; nor any night prayer sessions in the mosque where the whole of the Koran is recited over the course of the month.

Instead, some mosques are experimenting with virtual services, just as other faiths have done. The Open Iftar project, a missionary endeavour launched in 2013, claims to have hosted more than 100,000 people for iftar meals but this year it has prepared a virtual pack for meals to be held over Zoom or Facebook. It is possible that Islam is the world religion best prepared for a shift towards virtual meetings, since the Muslim communities of South Asia already maintain contact across extended families in diasporas around the world using WhatsApp and Facebook.

Terrible toll of virus on black-led churches

Is the coronavirus hitting black-led churches disproportionately? One of the earliest recorded outbreaks in England was among the Church of God of Prophecy congregation in Wolverhampton, in which two elderly bishops died; another 10 clergy and congregation who had attended the same convention were also reported dead by the local newspaper, although this has not been confirmed by the church.

This morning’s Washington Post reports a similar toll in another denomination — the Church of God in Christ, which has about six million mainly black members. Up to 30 bishops and prominent clergy are reported to have died as a result of attending conferences or funerals of colleagues. The denomination now enforces strict lockdown, but the toll the disease has taken on black-led churches seems to exceed anything suffered by white churches even when they have a similar theology.

Professor Anthea Butler, a scholar of African American religion, blamed the deaths on the general health inequalities of African Americans. It will be interesting to see what happens to the few white Evangelical congregations whose pastors have been flouting the rules against gathering in church. Already one such pastor, Tony Spell of Louisiana, has been arrested and released for driving a bus full of parishioners towards a protester. One of his ushers has already died of the disease, and his lawyer is in intensive care.

Enough to test the patience of a monk . . .

Not everyone will be able to approach their solitude with the equanimity of the Rev Jonathan Aitken, who, after disgrace as a politician and a jail sentence for perjury, spent his time in Belmarsh Prison learning New Testament Greek, writing letters by hand, and learning and reciting English poetry.

Those of us with less drive and self-discipline might find helpful a website launched by Abbot Christopher Jamison that hopes to transfer the lessons learnt over centuries of monastic life to the people who find themselves under lockdown today.

He compares the experience of family members under lockdown to that novice monks through the ages: “You become vividly aware of the flaws of other people,” he says. The inability either to be alone or with anyone outside the small community of a family or a monastery sets up a great strain, he adds. The Rule of St Benedict (Chapter 70) even contains a prohibition against monks hitting one another and that ban, says Abbot Christopher, would not have been needed unless it actually happened.

His site is aimed at those who would call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, because he believes that the lessons of religious life are also profoundly human. They are tied to ways of life and habits of mind as much as to any particular doctrine. “The best religious truths are, of course, human truths. This is a time when the human truths of a religious community. While these truths can be known by other people, the reality is that the greatest repository of these truths is in religious communities.”

There is clearly a demand for these truths, though. More than 10,000 visitors came in the first week, and there are plans to expand to Facebook and other platforms.