Bishop of Paisley's Christmas plea offers not hope, but fear - Martyn McLaughlin

There is a reason why so few epidemiologists are seen wearing clip-on dog collars, but if you were in any doubt as to why, John Keenan, the Bishop of Paisley, provided a timely reminder at the weekend.

Religious gatherings and places of worship have been curtailed by the pandemic. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty

With the most important date in the Christian calendar fast approaching, an event which could well dovetail with an ever-increasing spike in positive Covid-19 cases as winter beckons, he offered up a suggestion of how to secure a “semblance of normality” on Christmas Day.

Outlining a plan so fiendishly cunning yet implausible that it would make a certain Private Baldrick proud, he proposed a 24 hour lifting of the restrictions on social gatherings and celebrations across Scotland, so that loved ones - denied the solace of another’s company for so long - might be able to gather for one special day.

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The Blackadder theme prevailed as Bishop Keenan fleshed out his idea, describing the temporary hiatus in restrictions as “a break in the war of Covid,” comparable to the pause to fighting on the Western Front in 1914, when British and German troops laid down their guns and met in no man’s land to celebrate Christmas.

It is hard to know where to begin in terms of articulating the absurdity of this argument. The fact that one of Scotland’s most senior faith leaders should rely on wartime evocations? The ethical pitfalls of using simplistic language to compare a virulent disease to a conflict? The inability to understand the meaning of a coronavirus ‘circuit breaker’? The blithe assumption that putting the entire population at increased risk is a price worth playing simply so we can pull a few crackers and complain about the unremitting awfulness of Mrs Brown’s Boys? There’s plenty to choose from. Take your pick.

Perhaps, though, all of the above are trumped by the fact that the evidential basis for stating that Sars-CoV-2 might observe the occasional truce is, well, non-existent. Bishop Keenan may well be a man of faith, but it requires only a rudimentary understanding of the science to grasp this.

As Dr Nicola Steedman, Scotland’s deputy chief medical officer, has pointed out: “The difficulty with this particular amnesty is that our opponent, if you like, hasn’t agreed to it. This is not something that Covid-19 has signed up to.”

Even if Bishop Keenan’s failing was to choose a clumsy analogy, rather than wilfully deny science and critical thinking, that is bad enough. Whichever way you cut it, he has jeopardised the public health message. That is an insult to his flock, and to every family in Scotland which has endured the gravest of losses and been forced to make unimaginable sacrifices these past eight months.

It is inconceivable that he should be incapable of understanding this, though perhaps he could consult those parish priests who have borne witness to the suffering, who have consoled relatives forced to stay at home while their loved ones have been buried; or families who have seen weddings and christenings cancelled; or the parents of newborns denied the embrace of their aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

These are seminal moments in our lives, and for thousands of Scots, Covid-19 has exacerbated their pain, or dulled their joy. The exceptionalist argument that the anniversary of Christ’s birth is more important than any of them merely twists the knife further.

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If I am appalled at the bishop’s idea, I can at least understand the motivations behind it. He is right in arguing that hope is important, and now more than ever. We are all yearning for respite and a glimmer of light at the end of the darkest of years. That hope must be nourished, against all odds.

But setting aside the restrictions for Christmas brings not hope, but fear. It is a hard truth to accept, but should the current spike in infections persist, coupled with the continuing wait for a vaccine, there can be no normality - not even a semblance of it. The price of a single day’s celebrations in December would be paid in early 2021 at accident and emergency wards up and down the country.

These are the facts of the matter, blunt though they may be, and yet increasingly, those who stand by them are characterised as “Covid fatalists” or “grim realists.” This criticism assumes that the two outlooks are mutually exclusive, but it is entirely possible to be wary and optimistic at the same time. It is not easy, and it will only get harder. People are fatigued, scared, and resentful. But it is vital that we try.

There is a place for organised religion here, just as there has always been during times of strife and unrest. Faith can help lift up those mired in the depths of mental illness and isolation, and offer some much needed drive and purpose to the lost and lonely. At a time when the worst public health crisis in living memory is exacting a ruinous legacy upon the wellbeing of so many, this capacity for comfort and resilience should not be underestimated.

But for so many, the church’s word is much more than that. It is instructional, a guide which shapes day to day decisions. With that great influence comes great responsibility, and if misused as Bishop Keenan has done, it puts lives on the line.

He might well remember that the idea of sacrifice lies at the heart of Christianity, and that in 2020, it has been central to the lives of followers of all faiths and none. It has revealed our better nature, and served a constant reminder that what we do and say has implications beyond ourselves.

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