Pass the Light On

Sitting in the cathedral clutching my candle we were told “If you’ve got a neighbour pass the light on” as the flame did a relay throughout the people. We each cautiously lit the wick of our immediate neighbour’s candle, anticipating the lights being switched off and sitting bathing in the glow of our flames. Alone the candles have little light, but en masse the flames lit up the vast space of the cathedral.

“If you’ve got a neighbour, pass the light on” is a lesson for us all as we sit in the darkness and wait. I found myself giving in to the stillness and waiting of Advent this year.

22 months into the pandemic there are huge divisions in opinion which is most noticeable online on socials such as Twitter. Humans desperate to control the actions of others and unwilling to embrace nuance and messiness.

I have felt deeply disappointed with the church as institution during the pandemic. The church has failed to acknowledge the harms of lockdowns themselves which disproportionately impact those with the least and women and children who are being abused.

This attitude is reflected in the judgement towards mask wearing. Not everyone can wear a mask due to many disabilities and chronic illnesses, including many victims of childhood sexual abuse/exploitation, rape victim-survivors, domestic violence survivors etc. Put simply, by policing mask-wearing and not acknowledging that many people cannot wear one without having panic attacks and great distress, the church is excluding those who need love and inclusion and a safe space.

Many of those who cannot wear a mask were abused as children by those connected to religious institutions. Churches who make these victims feel uncomfortable are (re)traumatizing them all over again.

Yesterday I had a visit from a good friend. As we had lunch on the terrace at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, I recounted an incident that happened during advent.

I attended a carols by candlelight service at a nearby church (not the cathedral and not my home church). I had my lanyard on and sat out the way on a side pew. A double-masked church warden did not light our candles, and the families a few pews back did not offer either. It was awkward, upsetting and inhospitable. As the overhead lights went out we in the dark as everyone’s flames burned but ours.

I was going to email the vicar, but reflected that this warden clearly had significant anxiety. Of course that does not give him the right to discriminate against disabled people and/or those with significant trauma.

Recounting this story to my friend yesterday, I realised how symbolic it was. For all its rainbows and slogans, the church has failed to explicitly address how to treat those who cannot wear masks and those on the margins.

Nor has it recognised the serious raced and classed inequalities associated with vaccination hesitancy. Justin Welby has waded in with claims that getting vaccinated is a ‘moral issue’.

The church should be explicitly addressing the racism of vaccinations being hoarded by the rich and kept from countries in the global south. The church should address the Covid-19 nationalism, racist red lists, and deplorable xenophobic language and imagery used by some scientists. The church should be speaking to the many valid reasons why many communities have a deep mistrust of the state and medicine. It is no good for a white middle-class man with a private education and a life of extreme privilege to wade into these debates and simplify them.

I have blogged before about my struggle to reconcile parts of my identity with the church. I also struggle with the failure of religious powers to do the right thing or be accountable.

The season of advent teaches us that our waiting in the darkness pays off. As ever may we be grateful for the love in our lives.

In the recovery period I hope that we will all be radically kind, show grace and mercy, and light the way for others.

I hope that you are all bearing up during this time of grief, trauma, sadness, frustration and uncertainty.

Gemma x