• Meg Warner

Re-visiting Aberfan: The Church of England and Covid-19

During the lockdown I’ve taken the opportunity catch up on Netflix’s ‘The Crown’. I’ve found it to be compelling television. This is especially true of the episode simply titled ‘Aberfan’, which recounts the events of the 1966 disaster in which a coal tip collapsed and engulfed a village school.

As horrendously awful as the Aberfan disaster was – especially given the large numbers of deaths among young children – the real focus of the episode is the response of Her Majesty the Queen to the tragedy. Although she was asked, it is suggested, by several of her closest advisors, including the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, whether she would visit Aberfan – even urged to do so – she initially refused even to discuss the matter, arguing that the Crown ‘visits hospitals, but not disaster sites’ and that the last thing the good people of Aberfan would want was a monarch getting in the way of the relief effort. Her hand was forced, eventually, when the government of the day, reluctant to take the heat, attempted to divert attention to the Crown, and particularly to the absent Queen.

The Queen did visit Aberfan, eight days after the tragedy, where, according to the script-writers, she did her best to feign the emotion that she had been advised would be expected from her by her Welsh subjects. The Crown was thus saved the full weight of public disapproval. Nevertheless, the enduring memory, it was suggested, was of the belatedness, and perhaps also the coldness, of the Queen’s response.

Although the Queen maintained that the reason for her initial refusal to visit Aberfan was her reluctance to obstruct rescue efforts, the emotional thesis of the episode was that underlying that apparently selfless motive lurked a pervasive, and quite personal, fear. ‘One feels so hampered in such situations’ she complained initially, but as the episode progressed she was able to identify the fear as springing from a sense of inadequacy connected with her ability to experience, and express, emotions. She wasn’t convinced, it seems, that she had anything to offer the situation. This fear, in fact, lurks beneath events in all three series of ‘The Crown’ and is arguably the dramatic impetus for the actions of the monarch, her family and her retinue; a young queen, coming unexpectedly to the crown after the abdication of her uncle and the early death of her father, with the prospect of a long reign before her, does not want to be the monarch under whose leadership the institution of the monarchy is judged to be out of date, out of touch and irrelevant, or indeed to be ‘thrown out’, as was the fate, she is constantly reminded by Prince Philip, of the Greek monarchy.

There is an element of Oedipal tragedy in this portrayal, in the sense that the Queen’s desire to avoid the fate that she most fears, and that she considers to be almost inevitable, causes her to misread the public thirst for her presence – so closely aligned with her responsibility to offer it – and to make a misstep that threatens to bring about the very disaster she had been hoping to avoid.

The Queen (the real-life one this time) has publicly reflected that her reluctance to visit Aberfan is one of the great regrets of her long reign, and this sense of regret is borne out in the fact that she has subsequently visited Aberfan on numerous occasions – significantly more often than the sites of other disasters.

One of the striking images in the episode is of a mass grave containing a long row of tiny coffins. The grave is strewn with bunches of flowers, still in their cellophane wrappings. There were, of course, no cellophane-wrapped flowers on the real Aberfan grave – that was a phenomenon that began only with the death of Princess Diana – and recourse to a black and white photo of the original reveals a far more restrained scene. No doubt the programme’s producers wished to draw parallels between Aberfan and the Queen’s other misstep – her disastrous failure to read the public thirst for her response to Diana’s sudden death. On both occasions, the symbolism suggests, the Queen allowed a sense of inadequacy to cloud her usual judgment and encourage her to hide herself away in the safety of her palaces (Buckingham in one case and Balmoral in the other), thereby ironically exposing the Crown to the greater danger.

This inclination for private withdrawal was in fact at odds with the Crown’s response to earlier public threats. A feature of the young Elizabeth’s childhood had been her family’s decision to remain in London during the blitz, rather than to retreat (under significant government pressure) to Scotland or even Canada. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) would take the young princesses, Elizabeth herself and Margaret, on public inspection-tours of London bombsites. It is entirely possible, of course, that it was this very experience that led to Elizabeth’s inability to experience emotions – that the young girl had been sufficiently traumatized by what she had seen that when public service was unexpectedly and abruptly thrust upon her she understandably, if subconsciously, shut herself off from extreme emotions.

It was the very preparedness of Princess Diana to acknowledge and to be present to trauma (she was the first member of the royal family to visit an AIDS ward and to shake the hands of patients) and to embrace and express intense emotions (she did this famously, of course, through the media, but she was also the first to break with the convention that no member of the royal family should appear in public while pregnant) that threatened to unbalance the monarchy upon her death.

Venturing slightly closer to our own context, it is arguable that the iconic mistake of Theresa May during her term as Prime Minister was her failure to visit Grenfell Tower in the days immediately following the fire and to ‘console’ with survivors and bereaved families. Her belated visit, in which she spoke only to public figures and not to victims, did little to save the situation. It could further be suggested that Jeremy Corbyn’s then extraordinary public popularity stemmed from, or was consolidated in, his immediate and inherently pastoral response, which differed so markedly from May’s apparent determination to shield her government (and the local Conservative Council?) from the growing anger at official failures to heed warnings about the dangers of supposedly fire-resistant cladding applied to high-rise public housing.

The closure of churches in the face of Covid-19

For some of us, however, the most pressing instance of public absentia in the face of disaster is the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior bishops to close Church of England churches during the Covid-19 pandemic – a decision exceeding even Government guidelines – and thereby denying entry even to clergy for the purposes of streaming services of worship.

It wasn’t until I watched the portrayal of the Queen’s reluctance to visit Aberfan in 1966 that I began to think that I had anything approaching a sense of an understanding of this policy, or of its potential impact. This is despite the fact that I have spent the last two years as part of a team researching responses of churches to traumatic events, and co-ordinating the editing of a book of essays by church leaders from around the UK called Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The Practical Theology of Trauma (published by Routledge late in 2019). One of the most striking pieces of learning from that project was the reflection of ordinary priests of once-ordinary churches, fatefully located in the near vicinity of Grenfell Tower, or Borough Market, or the Skripal bench in Salisbury, for example, that opening the doors of their churches in the hours after those disasters had felt like the single most significant act of their entire ministries. These reflections I came to hold at the core of my sense of what it means to be church in the context of disaster.

Against that background, the parallels between the retreat of the fictionally-realised Queen to her palace, and the withdrawal of the bishops of the Church of England to theirs, suddenly felt too compelling to go unexplored.

I recalled that I had written a blog post two years ago (almost to the day) about the churches’ responses to the string of tragedies that hit the UK in the spring and summer of 2017 (the Manchester Arena Bombing, the Westminster and London Bridge attacks, the North London Mosque attack and, of course, Grenfell) titled ‘Churches in Crises – A National Necessity?’ It was published in Via Media News and Christianity Today. I noted that although these disasters were in many ways highly traumatic events for the nearby churches, there were also significant positives, as ‘the nation suddenly discovered that churches were there, and that they had some quite valuable things to offer.’ I went on:

This was nowhere more apparent than in the devastating aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The difference between the responses of the local council and the churches (together with synagogues and mosques) could hardly have been more marked. Those things that residents immediately looked to the secular authorities to provide – places to congregate, cups of tea, food, emergency supplies, venues for meetings and media conferences, collection and distribution points for donations, a caring word or a hug – were provided instead by the churches. Here was a network of buildings with on-site staff, catering facilities and willing armies of volunteers that could be mobilised at a moment’s notice, even in the middle of the night. Black and purple shirts became familiar, prominent, sights on the news reports in the days that followed – immediately recognisable.

… Most cities, towns or areas have disaster-response plans that are made by local authorities, together with policing, fire-fighting and other civic and community organisations. In the past churches have been sometimes consulted and sometimes not. That has changed. Religious leaders are now typically central partners in the making of such plans and religious buildings are being marked for key roles. And now when disasters occur, for the first time, clergy are being invited inside disaster cordons, to counsel and support victims and responders.

For the most part, at least initially, the Church of England has taken the lead in this kind of public liaison, opening the way also for other churches and other faith groups to respond. Indeed, it was soon discovered that inter-faith responses – where already existing relationships made them possible – were not only desirable but necessary. The Bishop of Manchester’s foresight in insisting that he should make public statements, following the Manchester Arena bombing, only when accompanied by leaders of other churches and faith groups, was influential in this regard.

These were not the only public contributions of the churches, of course. In the days, weeks and months that followed the string of tragedies, large numbers of ordinary people availed themselves of memorial services, public cleansing rites, and opportunities to participate in simple public rituals. Not only the public, but local authorities and government looked to the Church of England to help them in their responses to the disasters. At one end of the scale, the government prevailed upon the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral to hold a national service of mourning for survivors and the bereaved following the Grenfell fire. Nobody who attended that service, or saw the live broadcast, will ever forget it, and it cannot be doubted that its healing influence was profound. At the other end of the scale (and of the Millennium Bridge), Borough Council approached the Dean of Southwark for advice about how to deal with an impromptu ‘shrine’ of flowers, post-it-notes and teddy bears that had built up, a la Princess Diana, on London Bridge and that was quickly becoming a public health hazard. Andrew Nunn arranged for a very brief public liturgy at the site, designed to smooth the removal of the gathered items into trucks, and to reassure the passing public that the items would be not just relegated to the status of rubbish, but treated with respect. The intention was that once he had picked up one, totemic, item and placed it on the truck, professional staff would step in the complete the transfer. That was not what happened. Instead, the gathered members of the public, entirely of their own accord, formed a queue and one by one picked up items and took them reverently to the trucks. They created their own ritual, and so a potential PR disaster was turned into an opportunity for healing and integration.

Perhaps because I am Australian I have been particularly struck, since I’ve been in this country, by the role of the Church of England as the established church. I hadn’t expected to be especially in favour of it, but these events and others have caused to me to re-consider my views and feelings. One surprise experience was hearing the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, speak in ardent defence of the establishment of the Church of England. In the context of a public conversation between himself and Archbishops Desmond Tutu and Rowan Williams, Lord Sacks maintained that he would rather live in a nation with an established church than in a nation without one, like the USA. At its best, said Lord Sacks, the Church of England functions not to exclude but to include the members of other faiths. It is, he said, like the host of an evening party, whose responsibility it is to ensure that all the guests are comfortable, fed and introduced to one another. (Rowan Williams famously responded, ‘At last – I know my role in life – I am a glorified cocktail waitress!’)

I concluded my 2018 blog by referring to the Church of England’s role as established church, and hoping that the Church of England would see what others had seen during the period of the 2017 disasters – that the C of E had something both significant and necessary to offer in the context of public disasters, and that secular Britain knew it and wanted it. I hoped that the Church of England would revisit current trends in its ecclesiological self-understanding, and rediscover what, and who, it is for.

Recent developments, however, suggest to me that that is not how things have turned out. Although Covid-19 has widely led to the closure of churches in many parts of the world, the decision to close Church of England churches in the face of Covid-19, and to close them beyond what was required by government legislation, raises pressing questions, including questions about the Church of England’s self-understanding of its role and responsibilities, and of their value.

Those, then, were my thoughts prior to seeing ‘The Crown’s ‘Aberfan’. Since then, I have been wondering about the parallels between the Queen’s response to that tragedy and the Church of England’s response to Covid-19, and what they might say to us. Has the Church of England, too, made a ‘disastrous misstep’, failing to hear the thirst of the nation for its attention? Is it, in fact, vacating the public square, leaving a space to be filled by some other national institution such as the NHS or another church more willing to take on public responsibility?

The Archbishop of Canterbury published a video on 8 April, in which he offered ‘five very simple reasons’ for the closures. Reasons One and Four, in their own ways, are the Covid-19 equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s determination not to get in the way of the Aberfan disaster relief effort (‘You have to be available in whatever way is best, and the public health message is, let me say it again, stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’). Reasons Two and Five are based on the argument that the Church is not its buildings, but the people of God (‘It’s a way of saying we don’t depend on the buildings, wonderful as they are, and they are treasures. What we depend on is the presence of God, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who leads us into his love, into his mission, into following him’).

Reason Three is expressed briefly: ‘And thirdly, for ministers, for priests and bishops it’s about sharing in the inconveniences, the restrictions, the isolations imposed on us. It’s about being part of the flock rather than some super special category that can go and do its own thing.’ Those last words, ‘super special category’ and ‘do its own thing’, are revealing. Surely, the Church of England, as the church ‘by law Established’ for the whole nation is precisely a ‘super special category’? It is not, however, and should not be, about doing its own thing – it is about doing the national thing. To have grasped this truth, and to have acted upon it, would undoubtedly have led to disapproval in some quarters, but it would have demonstrated solidarity with the nation, as well as asserting that what it has to offer in doing its ‘national thing’ is of some value.

Each of the Archbishop’s five reasons possesses the virtues of wisdom and truth, in some degree. They are, however, based upon a single, breath-takingly chilling, admission. That admission is that in these, admittedly extraordinary, times, the Church of England, if it were to intervene, would be likely to do more harm than good.

What the established church has to offer, the official position concedes, is markedly less than that offered by hospitals and supermarkets, off-licences, take-away restaurants, post offices, banks, public transport and DIY stores. It does not consider itself and its ministry to be ‘essential’.

Such a concession – the apparent lack of conviction that the Church of England has anything to offer the situation – is deeply disheartening. The Church of England’s experience of the disasters of 2017 shows it also to be wrong.

Why is it that the Church of England now appears to be content to throw away the green shoots of its new life that everybody else seems to have noticed in 2017?

The parallels between the Queen and Aberfan and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Covid-19 are not, I suggest, superficial and they are not coincidental. As valid and cogent as the five reasons articulated by the Archbishop may be, they do not paint the full picture. The Bishops’ decision, the Aberfan story suggests, is motivated, at least in part, by fear. The fear is that the Church of England has little to offer to Covid-19 society, and that if offered, it would likely be judged irrelevant, and therefore self-indulgent and dangerous.

Ironically, the Archbishop’s decision to withdraw to his palace, away from public consciousness, and to direct his bishops and priests to do likewise, just as in the case of the withdrawal of the Queen after Aberfan and the death of Diana, raises the spectre of precisely the outcome the Archbishop and the Church of England are keen to avoid. Like Oedipus and the Queen, the Archbishop, in his attempt to ‘do the right thing’, risks bringing about the very disaster of which he himself has often warned – that the churches might be empty by the end of his unexpectedly long tenure at Canterbury.

In fact, as I’ve outlined above, The Church of England, along with other churches and faith groups, have invaluable resources to offer in times of disaster. The referencing of ‘buildings’ in the Archbishop’s video follows the current fashion of downplaying what is sometimes viewed as the embarrassing and burdensome property portfolio of the Church of England, emphasising instead the full constitution of the church in her people. The experience of 2017, however, shows this view to be short-sighted. Our churches, their buildings, and their people, are a national resource that come into their own supremely at a time of national disaster.

Yes, our current disaster is admittedly very different in nature, and in consequence, from the 2017 disasters. The infectious nature of the virus makes this a very different situation from any of those encountered in 2017. Even so we need our churches to be sacraments of community, surgeries of fear and grieving, and architects of public ritual and meaning. Ironically, the secular world learned that lesson in 2017 better than the Church of England itself did. If we ever knew it, we have now forgotten, much as Elizabeth forgot the lessons of Aberfan when it came to Diana’s death.

There has been little apparent attempt by Church of England leadership to discern how churches and clergy might continue to function safely even within the current restrictions. On the other hand, we have all learned very quickly to queue safely to buy our groceries. Why are there not also queues outside our churches, as people wait patiently to enter liminal place, to participate in a ritual as simple as lighting a taper that will carry their prayer for a short time before conveniently melting down into a bowl of sand, taking any residual traces of the virus with it? (It could be argued, after all, that the Church of England, with its dwindling congregants spread out among too-many pews, is an institution that had already turned social distancing into an artform.)

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of the Church of England were placed in a terrible bind by our current crisis. They were required to balance lives against the abundance of life that Christ proclaimed. Whatever course they decided to steer would have inevitably opened them, like the Queen, to criticism and blame.

It is difficult to avoid, however, the conclusion that they have decided that it would be best if we did not, collectively, visit Aberfan.

I wonder how that decision will be remembered, and what its long-term consequences for the Church of England – not to mention it ministry to this nation – will be?

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