War is a dreadful thing. As well as its destructive power, however, it is also one of the driving forces behind technological advance and social change. Much of what we take for granted as part of our normal daily life is its direct or indirect result. When we turn on the radio, use the internet, boil a kettle (using electricity partly created by nuclear power), fly abroad, use satnav or take antibiotics, we are benefiting from technology created and developed, at least in part, for military reasons. War changes society in other ways too, transforming the way individuals, groups and nations relate to each other.
Mobilising for war has led to unexpected peace-time spin-offs, accelerating change, or making change possible, that would otherwise have taken much longer. Some of these changes have clearly been beneficial. Quite apart from technological advances, would votes for women, the establishment of the National Health Service or the formation of the United Nations have occurred when they did, were it not for the First and Second World Wars?
Today the country, and indeed the world, is at war against Covid-19, and it is likely that we will see similar significant social and technological change as a result. Working life has been disrupted for many, and is unlikely to return unaffected to pre-Covid-19 routines. Some jobs will be permanently lost as businesses fail, and working from home will probably become more common. Attitudes towards the medical and caring professions, and the role of Government, both national and local, are changing quite profoundly. As the resources of industry are enlisted to help the fight, new products and processes will emerge. Leisure and education have been radically affected, and while much may return to pre-Covid-19 practices, not everything will. International relations are also bound to change. On the one hand, the global nature of the threat forces us all to face our common humanity. On the other, national borders are closing, devastating international travel and trade, and hindering co-operation. All this will require fresh thinking and new priorities at every level of society, from Government to individual.
In church life, churches with the necessary skills are developing new ways of holding congregations together using social media. Services are being streamed on-line as never before. Most churches, however, with fewer and older members, struggle. If the need for social isolation continues for long, as seems likely, the habit of meeting regularly will be eroded. Many are discovering for the first time resources and opportunities for worship and fellowship without leaving home. The return to meeting together will be welcomed, but it is nonetheless hard to predict the consequences when restrictions are eased or lifted. As far as the witness of the Church is concerned, there are clearly new opportunities as people seek for answers in a world that seems far less secure and predictable.
We are in the early stage of the campaign against Covid-19, and it is impossible to tell what its long term impact will be. But it is already clear that the consequences will be considerable. In church life, as in other areas of society, those who are able to embrace the new opportunities that arise will prosper, and those who want to return to the way things were are likely to find it more difficult. We will all be glad to see the back of the virus – although the fear of another pandemic will surely remain with us for a long time – and most will probably be keen to return to “normality”, but it is very likely that a new normality will emerge. As with the long term consequences of more conventional wars, there will be important potential benefits. We need to hope and pray that we will be able to turn that potential into reality, in church life as everywhere else.