Covid-19, pints of beer and the birth of Jesus
Covid-19 is about the human body. It carries on inexorably attacking invisibly, insidiously. Lock down after lock down, restrictions after restrictions follow. The frailties and follies of human nature are made visible in our politicians attempts to deal with Covid-19 and in the lack of care and concern of many people about requests and rules to conform for the sake of others and themselves. The UK figures for deaths are grievous, 53775 as of 20th November and rising rapidly, and any sense of national superiority has vanished with them. There are also high numbers of deaths from other diseases and conditions which have not been diagnosed and treated since March due to NHS concentration on Covid-19, some 10,000 cancer sufferers among them.
The social affects of political management of the pandemic are also concerning. According to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, 63% of those surveyed admit to feeling stressed and anxious, 61% express concern about their futures, 48% are bored, 38% feel more lonely and 32% have mental health issues arising from current conditions. The hopes for vaccines are encouraging for the medium term. Everyone expects a difficult and troubled winter. Humanity is being put through severe times of testing.
The most often televised symbol of life under Coronavirus is the pint glass being filled with beer. Hardly a news bulletin has passed without pubs and restaurants being featured. The most popular ‘continuous drama’ programmes (soaps) on television Coronation Street, Emmerdale and East Enders are set primarily in pubs. There is therefore a continuity between fact and fiction. Pubs are portrayed as the centre of human life, culture and society among the people of this land.
This is a false representation. 25% of pubs have closed since 2001. 994 pubs have closed in the last year (2%). Not all closures can be blamed on Coronavirus. However consumption of alcohol has increased significantly over the years due to its availability in supermarkets. Between 2016 and 2017 there was an increase of £172 million in these sales. A survey reported on 5 Apr 2018 that ‘Alcohol has retained its position as the top selling consumer goods ... as the top-grossing consumer goods category’ according to the latest report from data firm IRI'. Another survey published on 13 Oct 2020 reported ‘Alcohol sales grew by 10.6 per cent in the four weeks to October 4’. It also said ‘Drinking at home sends supermarket sales soaring: Britons spent an extra £261m on alcohol last month’ and that ‘web sales grew by 76 per cent year-on-year with a fifth of all sales maintaining its 5 per cent market share’.
The prophet Jeremiah asked ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?’ (8:22) Christianity is about the eternal soul within the human body. Christianity offers personal faith, hope, comfort, consolation, inner healing, inspiration, direction and empowerment to live well and the knowledge of eternal life to follow. It offers more than alcohol and drugs do without the cost to and wreckage of life. It answers meaning of life questions and offers communities of recognition and relationship. The resort to alcohol for comfort and consolation has been a perennial habit of humans for millennia. Now it is carried out on an industrial scale. At the same time the use of recreational drugs has proliferated with bien-pensants seeking liberalisation of laws on the sale and use of such drugs. According to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee 2019 Report ‘Problem drug use in Scotland’ ‘the rise in drug deaths in Scotland has been relentless, reaching an all-time high of 1,187 deaths last year’.
A lone voice drawing wider conclusions from current lifestyles is that of Sir Ian Boyd, Professor in Biology at the University of St Andrews and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra). In an article in ‘The Times’ newspaper on 14 November he wrote ‘Our hedonism exposes faulty choices and frailties’. It sounds like the introduction to a Presbyterian sermon. No UK Christian leader has said as much or had the courage to challenge current mores. Ian Boyd draws a distinction between what we want and what we need and makes this the basis of proper moral choice. He contrasts our vulnerabilities exposed by Covid-19 with the greater resilience of people in Africa who have simpler lifestyles, needs and wants. Boyd excoriates the values that promote and prioritise luxury. Bad eating habits have resulted in high levels of obesity, heart disease and diabetes and Covid-19 has exploited these. All our institutions participate in these damaging practices, he maintained.
This Christmas will be quieter and smaller than usual. That must be a good thing, even if it has been forced upon us. Christmas = Excess (C=E2) has been the habit and practice in recent years. It is an absurd commercially driven paradox being largely the Christmas season without Christianity, without Jesus Christ, without the slightest understanding or respect for the actual narrative of the birth of Jesus. Parties and booze, obligatory manufactured jollities are now infected by crudeness of language and off colour humour as our nation throws off the last remnants of Christian Faith.
The birth of Jesus is our emblem of hope, of sanity and of repair. There are fewer words more beautiful than the Carols we will not be allowed to sing together this year.
‘How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.’ (O Little Town Of Bethlehem)
Heart before mind, will before intellect – this is the required order for us humans to discover the truth and realities of Christmas. Spirit before body, moderation before indulgence – these are the means of recovery. Worship, prayer and praise before pubs, dancing and singing – this is the way of sense and sensibility. This is the way to Bethlehem. This is the way to make our peace with God. This is the way to know the Risen Jesus Christ today. Christianity is not finished on these islands. It can never be discounted. In Jesus’ resurrection is the energy and power of renewal and revival for Christians and even for our Churches. Against popular images this is already happening in our midst.
Counter intuitively churches are opening. Every survey suggests that Christianity is in decline throughout the UK. From the historically misleading figures of nominal membership that is probably true. Mainline churches, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist and Catholic close churches every year. Presbyterian and Methodist decline is most marked. But there is also Christian growth at present. According to Peter Brierley in his UK Church Statistics 2: 2010-2020 the actual number of Christian churches increased between 2008-2013 and is expected to continue to do so between 2013 and 2020. In 2008 the total number of churches was 49,727, in 2013 the total number of churches was 50,660 and the 2020 estimated number of churches is 51,275. Of these increases, 256 were new churches, 640 were Pentecostal and 1937 were smaller denominations. Below is a table from UK Christian Statistics.
UK Church Membership by Denomination, 2008 to 2020
Denomination 2008 Membership % change 2008-2013 2013 Membership % change 2013-2020 2020 Est Membership
Anglican 1,436,329 -5% 1,362,855 -9% 1,241,695
Baptist 208,488 -9% 189,152 -8% 174,873
Catholic 1,611,954 -13% 1,399,942 -19% 1,128,800
Independent 232,281 +3% 239,709 +4% 249,273
Methodist 270,832 -15% 231,357 -24% 176,160
New Churches 195,993 +9% 212,911 +10% 234,155
Orthodox 390,659 +19% 464,194 +11% 514,585
Pentecostal 358,370 +21% 432,687 +25% 541,954
Presbyterian 814,669 -20% 649,067 -30% 455,367
Smaller Denoms 155,425 +18% 182,723 +16% 211,883
Fresh Expressions 19,300 +273% 71,900 +50% 108,200
ALL Churches 5,694,300 -5% 5,436,497 -7% 5,036,945
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are answers. For some these may be tentative, inquiring, as in this excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ (1954)?
‘And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine’.
And some may be glorious, affirming and full of faith and conviction as these word testify.
‘Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th'angelic hosts proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"’