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A nation confronting its own mortality needs spiritual leadership. So where is Justin Welby?

A nation confronting its own mortality needs spiritual leadership. So where is Justin Welby?
Justin Welby has been saving up a grand pronouncement for the Lord's Day, it may prove welcome, but would have come far too late. CREDIT: YUI MOK /PA

By Simon Heffer
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/
15 March 2020

With an absence of word-mincing unusual in his office, the Prime Minister has warned that some of our loved ones will die because of the coronavirus. He has urged individuals to rally round and do what the state cannot, and ensure those in isolation are looked after. Our political leadership has not concealed just how fundamentally life could change for all of us.

It amounts to little less than a recalibration of our existence. Things we have taken for granted all our lives -- ease of movement and of assembly, freedom from pestilence, indeed the relative salubrity of life itself -- are threatened. Apart from the profound consequence that many will die before what was expected to be their time, we shall be forced back on resources of character we did not know we had, and made to change patterns of behaviour for the common good.

Mr Johnson began to articulate this; but the crisis takes us into philosophical questions about the nature of society and our place in it that go beyond the training or experience of a politician. They border on spiritual matters. The Prime Minister would presumably be the first to admit he lacks the authority required of a divine spokesman. When faced with matters of life and death, especially on this potential scale, our culture -- even if we are not religious ourselves -- demands something more elevated. And that brings us to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

As deaths rose and coronavirus cases multiplied last week, the Primate of All England, spiritual leader of the Established Church, was notably silent. Given we were being warned of a possible death toll that would remove a higher proportion of our population than at any time since the Great War, did the Almighty's Anglican vicar on earth have something to say? He did not. Perhaps Justin Welby has been saving up a grand pronouncement for the Lord's Day. If so, it may prove welcome, but would have come far too late.

At the top, the church he leads has been compliant with the bureaucracy of health and safety, but done little else. It has warned communicants against using the same chalice. Hygiene recommendations, it has said, should be observed. And if people went hungry because of the virus, a reinforcement of food banks would be useful.

But we await the Archbishop's advice on how the Bible might (or, indeed, might not) teach us how to cope and proceed in these alarming times. Or does he feel we face such an apocalypse that even religion, or at least his conception of it, is an inadequate tool with which to confront it?

If the expectations of scientists and clinicians are correct, then our people -- like those all over Christendom and beyond -- will have to think themselves out of the comfortable mindset that progress, peace and prosperity had secured ever since the end of the Second World War. The rights we assumed we had acquired, to consistent good health and far longer life, are under threat.

We are about to discover that the state does not after all, for all the wonders of the NHS, scientific research and welfarism, have a magic wand it can wave to restore certainty. All our assumptions about every aspect of existence are being challenged by the very forces of nature many thought progress had made subservient to humankind.

We are, above all, being asked to contemplate the sudden greater immediacy of death. The elderly, who have to do that, pandemic or no pandemic, every day, are far better at it than the young. That, not least, is where the spiritual lead is required; if the young do not themselves die, they may be about to be bereaved in staggering numbers.

The stock market may have crashed, but this is a great buying opportunity for the Church of England, an institution that, thanks to insipid leadership by the likes of Mr Welby, becomes emptier each Sunday. Soon, in a country pummelled by death, disease and uncertainty, religion may discover an army of potential recruits among those disorientated by change. Mr Welby's reticence suggests the Church of England is unprepared for this, and therefore failing.

Perhaps his inability to lead his flock in this crisis is the ultimate admission of the triumph of secularism, a creed more suited to an era when man believed he controlled the world: in which case he should go. It would be an ironic turn if it were left to the overtly godless -- of which I am one -- to form a new philosophy to console our people in a crisis whose most terrible impact is probably yet to come.

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