Were we too quick to close our doors during the pandemic?

(Photo: Hedgehog Digital)

It has been a few days since the government made that astonishing announcement that citizen were being given back the 'right to hug'.

The joy of a prospective return to normality all too easily masked a lurking sense of unease I had. When exactly did the government take that right away, a right they now were generously returning to us?

Wasn't it a fiction, a hyperbole, an untruth that they had taken it away? Carelessly or mischievously, they had mixed up guidance and law. There was not, and hopefully could not be a law against hugging. There had certainly been guidance, but by pretending it had been a law without paying the price for outraging us by trying to pass such a law, they were trying to pretend they exercised a control that they did not.

Why does this matter? Because creeping initiatives that the government uses to deprive us of liberty seldom get given back; because this government wanted to give the impression it had the power to make hugging illegal without putting it to the democratic test.

So, there is an issue about law and guidance smuggled into the fine print here, but there is also the issue about compliance.

How is that we have got into a situation where people think the government may have banned hugging? Or where the government itself thinks it has banned hugging?

Running down through the centre of our society is a dividing line between two different and opposing outlooks. It has become impossible to ignore the stark divisions in our society. Perhaps the most pressing one recently has been Brexit. But a generation ago there was one that lined up with supporters of Diana on one side and the other half of the country behind Charles on the other.

The monarchy may be a pressing issue, though Charles vs Di seemed to be as much about male vs female, facts vs sentiment.

Brexit was not so much pro- or anti-Europe as it was too easily portrayed, as it was pro- or anti-democracy. To simplify the arguments with a broad sweep of the brush, Remainers preferred the promise of economic security and were willing to give up political independence for it; Brexiteers wanted the freedoms contained in accountable democracy and were willing to become economically discomforted if that was the price they had to pay. Freedom and risk vs comfort and security.

Then came Covid. What initially looked like a matter of straightforward public health soon morphed into one of private freedom vs the potentiality of creeping government tyranny. On the one hand there is a desire and a need for safety, and on the other a desire and need for autonomy. Shield the vulnerable; don't imprison the healthy. Another aspect of freedom and risk vs the promise of security.

But although psychologically I am on the side of the risk takers and autonomy cherishers, there is another question: 'which approach is more Christian'?

The churches were very eager to set good civic examples, and willing to sacrifice spiritual integrity in order to promote physical safety. They locked their doors, abandoned worship and moved prayer online. Should they have?

Undoubtedly fear of death was one of the drivers behind the state taking control of the way we used our bodies. It chose to impose what felt like house arrest, debilitating the economy for a generation, blocking cancer sufferers and heart patients from seeking treatment.

A normal anxiety about death seems for an increasingly secular society to have escalated into a paralysing fear.

How might the churches have offered to help the sanity and safety of their neighbours? Perhaps by helping society do a reality check on death. We are all going to die. Measures to keep us safe from a nasty virus did not actually save lives. What they did do was to postpone death.

Of course, the situation was a bit more complex than that. Death was no doubt postponed for those for whom Covid would have placed such pressure on their bodies that they would have succumbed if they had contracted it; but lockdown hastened the death of those who were suffering from cancer and heart conditions depriving them of adequate treatment.

But, welcome though it is, all treatment does is to postpone our inevitable death. Even Sage recognised at the outset that the numbers of those who died in the pandemic would in all likelihood be matched by those who died from the consequences of locking down. We don't know for certain, because they have not yet been counted.

Christians can look death in the face with more equanimity not only because Christ rose from the dead, modelling resurrection and the promise of a future life, but also because the whole Judaeo-Christian narrative has at its heart an adventure in which we choose freedom over bondage, and life over death.

Whether it was the children of Israel preferring the freedom and danger of the desert in the company of God, to the protection and safety of slavery in Egypt; or the early church deciding that the duty to worship Christ rather than the emperor was worth risking death for, the people of God at their best have refused to be terrified by death into giving up their autonomy or freedom to choose.

Who would have thought that the right to hug would become a rallying cry for the struggle to choose between the responsibilities of the individual to their conscience, and the state's responsibilities to try to manage a virus?

It is not inevitable that a prioritising of the soul and the conscience should be at the expense of the body, but the Gospels do suggest it is a mistake to place fear of those who can jeopardize the body before fear of Him to whom we are accountable for our souls.

If fear is our prime motivation, either socially or personally, it ought to ring some serious alarm bells that we may not have got our priorities in order.

The government has committed itself to an inquiry examining if it got its priorities right in locking us down. Perhaps the churches should do the same.

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen. He blogs at Ashenden.org