Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be religion’s “finest hour” as people go above and beyond to help others and to connect with God on a deeply personal level.
Mirvis made the comments during a three-way video call with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Catholic Church.
The trio discussed having to make “life or death” decisions in recent days with regards to what stays open and what closes, with Mirvis saying “the absence of the house of prayer means we need to reconfigure the definition of community”.
Nichols said the “rootedness of faith now lies much more in each one of us,” adding that the pandemic was “teaching us those deeper roots of our relationship with God”.
Welby said: “We’ve been discussing here [at Lambeth Palace] and with the bishops is how much we have to learn from the Jewish community, the meal at the beginning of the Sabbath is an absolutely critical bit of liturgy that is led in the home. There is an all-age element to it.
“In the early Christian era church was in someone’s home, as buildings got grander and more significant we got to a strange place where the church is seen as the building. In fact the people are the church of God.”
Mirvis said Jewish religious leaders were “finding now that people are praying for prayer’s sake,” while Nichols said he had seen “a burgeoning of helping one another to pray,” adding that today’s reality was “the house church combined with the technology of the 21st century”.
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The Chief Rabbi said that, during the lockdown, selflessness had become “an integral part of our religious identity,” adding: “This is religion in its finest hour, when people are there for the sake of others. It’s quite extraordinary and inspirational… In our community people are going beyond the call of duty to be there for others.”
Welby said he had found likewise, but on a much larger scale. “We are finding around the Anglican communion, all 165 countries, that sense of community we’ve been missing for such a long time, if in fact we have ever had it before.”
Nichols said hundreds of years’ experience of monasteries shows that “structure, and within that structure time for silence” were vital, as Mirvis acknowledged that we were “living through momentous times”.
He said: “It is not often that you feel, right now, ‘I am living through a moment which, throughout the future, people will look back on as being a momentous turning point.’ Ever since 1945 we have been living in the post-war era, and I believe that from 2020 we will be living in the post-virus era.”
He added: “Together with you, I have a responsibility to make some very important decisions. It’s not often that a decision one makes as a leader make a difference to life or death but that’s actually what we are doing right now with regards to what remains open, what closes, and I feel the presence of the Almighty right now.”
Nichols said confinement was “a summons to all of us to live more closely to the important things” while Welby said: “When we are confined the most difficult person we meet is ourselves. We find things within us that we really don’t like, are ashamed of, try to cover up with anger. We’ve already seen an increase in domestic violence over recent weeks. In many people there is a very deep anxiety.”
He added: “At this time of year, in the run-up to Easter and Passover, we are reminded that God did not abandon his people, he was part of what was happening, he led them through the deepest most painful experience… Sometimes we only see God in retrospect.”
Reflecting on events, Mirvis said: “I described 2019 as the year of the unpredictable. From day to day history was being made, rule-books were being torn up, you didn’t know what the next hour would bring. What’s happening now has just out-classed that totally. It just shows that as smart as we think we are, we’re really not that smart.
“God delivered us, as the Israelites, from Egypt, and has sustained us through the most horrific events in our past. We look to him to sustain us now.”