So much has changed in the last month. We have learned a new vocabulary, with concepts such as 'self-isolation', 'lockdown' and 'social distancing' being frequently used. We have had to master new technology, with many becoming users of Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp and other social media platforms beside. I have learned to video from my iPhone, to broadcast on Facebook Live, be interviewed on radio through WhatsApp Record, and to chat to the BBC on Skype.
None of us would have chosen to face this global pandemic, COVID-19. We are all too aware of the terrible toll it is taking, both on lives and livelihoods. There is genuine anxiety for health and economic survival. There is no clear timetable or strategy for how or when we get out of this. Some, who are forced to live 'home alone', struggle with loneliness. Others, cooped up with over-active children, wonder if they can take another week, far less months. Some are 'trapped' in situations of domestic abuse and others grapple daily with mental health problems. Some fight addictions of various kinds.
Vulnerable groups of people face extended times at home. Others fear for the care home in which they live. If the virus strikes in its most severe form, then hospital visiting is not possible and if, tragically, death results, the normal funeral arrangements are on hold. Our sporting, civic and cultural diaries have been shredded, and many people have seen their dreams and plans fall apart. We will all be glad when this is over.
And yet, even at this time, some good things are emerging. Our country was not in good place when coronavirus struck. In Scotland, we were living in the aftermath of a referendum on Scottish independence and in anticipation of a possible bitter second one. On top of that, the UK is still struggling to discover what Brexit means, and on what terms our future trade would be conducted. Yet all that now seems strangely out of date and irrelevant. The absence of daily points scoring has allowed, to a degree, time and healing to take place. We have become united against this invisible enemy, beyond anything we could ever have hoped when we started 2020.
Even more surprising has been the paradox of vocabulary. For lockdown has opened doors and social distancing has brought us together. We are rediscovering that we need to be more than an organised society in order to work, and become a community where people look out for one another. Some people in lockdown are having more contact with people than they
have ever had before the virus came. People phone or write. They offer to help with shopping or in collecting medicines, and simply show love in action.
One consequence of churches being shut and services stopped is paradoxically that more people than ever are tuning in to virtual services online. Perhaps more people took in an Easter service than would in a normal year. BBC Scotland, in line with the rest of the UK, reintroduced a service of Christian worship each Sunday called Reflections at the Quay,
which is proving increasingly popular. Yet there is something extraordinary about it.
Each week since it started (and we have now had four Sundays as I write), the formula that has been used because of lockdown and social distancing is to use archived hymns from Songs of Praise
and two presenters, both clergy, one a minister of the Church of Scotland, the other a priest from the Roman Catholic communion. The service is divided equally, with each
participant having a chance to welcome, to pray and to briefly give a talk. I cannot think of when before a Minister and Priest would both preach side by side (though six feet apart!) on the same theme, with such acceptance and appreciation. For this to be filmed in Glasgow, where sectarianism has held such a strong sway, is quite simply remarkable.
I had the privilege on Easter Day, as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to share the service with Leo Cushley, Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. It was a joy to work with him and the producer, David Strachan, in planning the service and agreeing together the script. No history was allowed to get in the way – it simply wasn't an issue. At a very basic level, we were all fellow human beings wanting to give comfort and hope through a very difficult time. The production crew were part of the process. We couldn't be miked up or have make-up applied (social distancing), we did an elaborate 'dance' around one another, but crew and clergy felt united in trying to serve the public through our act of worship. It was wonderful.
Sometimes our manners mean we do not intrude into the lives of others. We want to give 'them', whoever they are, 'personal space'. However, that can be a justification for not caring and it can be a condemnation to true personal isolation. Social distancing, you would have thought, would have aggravated that condition, but not at all. People look out to see who is coming and not only make room for them to pass safely but often smile or
acknowledge them in a way that never used to happen. I have had more short conversations while out doing my daily exercise than I have had for years while living in Edinburgh.
While social distancing refers technically to how far apart you should be from others, the concept can be used in other ways. We are all aware of how the rich are getting richer while more are falling into poverty, even if they are employed. Zero-hours contracts do not protect people from the need for food banks. Yet this crisis has shown who we really depend on and time and again it is those on the minimum wage or on a low salary who have proved the true heroes. Care workers in care homes, drivers transporting much needed PPE (or even toilet rolls – still a mystery to me!) are on the frontline. Our NHS, so often a political pawn, not long ago being suggested as something which could be sold off to produce a good trade deal with the US, is now our most invaluable institution even though it is under-resourced. Doctors, nurses and other NHS staff both serve in high-risk situations and sadly some die in them.
If this period of our history helps us reflect on the true value of what people do, if it challenges the celebrity culture, if it affirms the worth of people by paying them properly, then the social distance between rich and poor might be addressed. If families have rediscovered how to talk with one another, and as importantly how to listen to each other and enjoy activities like eating at the same table, walking together and laughing, then the social distance within families will have been broken. If we remember to look out for our neighbours and are willing to initiate contact and offer help where needed, then we could build stronger ties with which to face the future. If, however, we long for normal life to be resumed as quickly as possible, then perhaps all that will come out of this is a nostalgia similar to those who look back romantically to the 'Blitz-time spirit' but having no relevance for today. The choice is ours and the time is now.
Rt Rev Colin A M Sinclair is Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
To watch Reflections at the Quay
on BBC iPlayer, Click here