They say it is foolish to try and predict the future but I am going to try.
As we emerge out of lockdown, there is going to be more pain in this nation than we have experienced for a very long time. And there’s going to be a lot less resource to meet that pain than there would normally be. And this mixture is going to present the church with the opportunity of a lifetime to serve this nation and make a genuine difference in people’s lives.
The pain is going to be pretty self-evident. We know there’s been an increase in domestic abuse during lockdown and that there is a personal debt crisis coming as furlough is ended and unemployment increases. Food poverty will also be a big thing. A You Gov poll recently reported that 1.5 million people had gone without food for at least one day since the start of lockdown and many of us read the shocking report of a 94-year-old lady who had not eaten for five days. Before lockdown there was already an emerging mental health crisis, but that too has increased with the stress and strain of the last few months.
In the light of this, in more normal times, one may turn to the government for assistance, but the government will be out of money. Sensible estimates are that the government is going to spend £300 billion on the response to Covid-19, this year. This is an eye-watering amount of unplanned expenditure, equivalent to almost 40% of the entire government budget in a year.
It is the combination of these two things, at this extraordinarily challenging time, that create an opportunity for the church to serve. I know that many of us feel bruised by the effects of lockdown, and we need to experience God’s healing ourselves, but in the midst of so much darkness, I do not want us to miss the opportunity we have to make a big difference.
The Old Testament prophets remind us at times like this that God’s people are to be a light in the darkness, speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and caring for the vulnerable. Jesus demonstrated this as he fed the hungry, healed the sick and stilled storms whilst speaking about the priority of our souls.
In this unprecedented moment, we should be provoked by the prophets’ words, inspired by Jesus’ example and fortified by the knowledge that the church has risen to similar challenges before in remarkable ways.
In 1835, Britain was in great need. The exploding population had resulted in high levels of poverty and there were levels of inequality that had never been experienced before. There was resentment against the ruling class, protests on the streets, and even an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in Hyde Park.
Many people responded to the sense of need, but historians tell us that it was Christians who set the tone.
If you were educated in those days it was because you could afford to pay for it. Many Christians felt this was unacceptable and created the Sunday school movement to enable children to learn to read, write and learn about the Bible on the one day of the week when they were not in the factories. In the second half of the 19th century, up to 80% of the nation’s children were educated this way.
Many others visited the poor, taking blankets, food and coal tickets, medicines, friendship and love. They were Britain’s first social workers.
Others, inspired by leaders like Florence Nightingale, convinced that God cares for our bodies as well as our souls, started a whole raft of new nursing institutions.
Business people were also involved in this extraordinary effort. The Cadbury brothers took over an ailing business determining to focus on making drinking chocolate that gave the urban poor a substitute to the gin that was damaging many lives. As their business grew, they also became known for their care for their workers and their sense of responsibility for the community they were part of.
The wealthy also played their part. The richest woman in Britain was Angela Burdett-Coutts. She was also a follower of Jesus. The breadth of her involvement in the care for the nation was extraordinary. She was concerned about children suffering violence at the hands of adults and so started the NSPCC; she wanted to enable young people to find good jobs so she founded Westminster Technical College; and she knew that many would die from cancer so she funded research at the Royal Brompton Hospital. She was not only well known but well loved. On one occasion crowds stood outside her house in Piccadilly and applauded for three hours. They called her, “Queen of the Poor”.
It is an inspirational picture: thousands of everyday Christians involved in the education of the nation each Sunday, many more visiting those in need and others showing their compassion through their care for the sick. Businesses making great products and being a blessing to their communities, and leading women using their resources and standing to advocate for those who needed it the most.
This was the church’s contribution to the mending of a nation torn apart by pain. A fresh opportunity has presented itself out of tragedy in our day. May God give us energy, creativity and determination to do the same, that people may “see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).