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Rights, Restrictions and Reorientation

The following article appeared in the online edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine, for June 2020.

The Century plant in March and in May

It was the Century Plant that brought me back to earth. A day or so after we entered Phase 1 of the Spanish State of Alarm, and were permitted to go out for exercise, I was walking down the path that adjoins the school in Es Castell, and for a moment, I had a surreal sensation, as if the previous two months had simply melted away. It was the strangest feeling, as if nothing had changed, and yet evidently things had changed – a lot.

So what about the Century Plant (agave)? I remembered that I had taken a picture of a striking agave against the blue sky at the beginning of March. At the beginning of May, it had sprouted flowers. Time had indeed passed, the missing two months measured in agave blossom.

It made me think of one of the illustrations of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, time dilation, wherein someone travelling away from the earth at close to the speed of light will return to find that more time has passed on the earth than for the person travelling. The story of Rip van Winkle might also apply.

I suppose that what I experienced was a sort of cognitive dissonance: the experience of being outside, in the open air again, satisfying a pent-up desire to enjoy Menorca’s countryside, playing against the knowledge that our lives are far from being back to normal.

What is ‘normal’ at the moment? A good measure – an iconic representation of a larger picture – can be seen in the rather complicated process about deciding when to reopen the church for public worship. We could have reopened the doors of the church during late May. But the prerequisites to do so are far from trivial. We face a barrage of directives, requirements and guidelines from the Spanish government, from FEREDE (the organisation that regulates churches that are not Roman Catholic in Spain), from our Bishops, and even from the Church of England.

There is, predictably, a variety of opinions on the matter within the church congregation, the churchwardens and the chaplaincy council. In reality, these reflect the general range of thoughts and feelings within the community at large about the opening of many aspects of communal life, beyond church worship.

Should churches, along with businesses and other establishments, be allowed to open and treat people as responsible adults? Should the church open, but restrict access? Should the church remain closed until much later in the year? There are those who are nurtured in many ways by their physical presence in a place of worship, yet many of these are also at high risk should they come into contact with a virus whose symptoms can be drastic and for which treatment is not guaranteed to be successful. In essence, we have to find a balance between managing risk and responding to the needs of our community of faith.

The discussion about returning to church is a microcosm of a debate within the British community, and the Spanish people, about how to manage risk in a pandemic. Eventually, the church doors will reopen, but we will almost certainly have to find a way to continue to serve those who choose not to come to church, as well as those who do.

Wrapped in this debate – about church, and about de-escalation in general – are basic questions about the rights of the individual to make a choice, balanced against the need to protect all the members of the community of which the individual is a member.

Recently, I was asked for some solace by a Spanish friend, who was clearly disaffected by the politics that played behind the State of Alarm declared by the government. She complained about her lost rights and her feeling of helplessness as she felt that her rights were infringed and restricted. She also lost her sister to coronavirus, which – to be honest – seemed a far more important thing than discussion of the rights of the individual.

It isn’t easy to craft a sensitive response in a second language, where nuance can creep inadvertently into the most seemingly innocent turn of phrase. What I said to her was that as a priest I must ultimately be ruled by the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself.” What that means is that the rights of the community outweigh the rights of the individual.

Rights are certainly important. But the Bible shows little interest in individual rights. Why? If I see my life primarily as a prepackaged set of guaranteed rights owed to me, instead of as a divinely bestowed gift, what motivation is there to feel deep obligation toward other members of society, especially the most vulnerable? (In fact, as a friend who is a Rabbi pointed out, the Bible speaks of responsibilities, in general, not rights.)

If I perceive that that all I receive is my rightful due, why would I ever need to express gratitude? What would be the point of looking outward toward others if I believe that I am chiefly responsible for looking inward and securing the personal rights that are mine?

We are communal beings, and the obligations to care for the community outweigh the rights of the individual. This is not to say that individuals don’t have rights, but those rights must be placed in the context of communal life. Any rights that we have as individuals are conferred on us with the consent of the community. In many cases, what we perceive to be rights are really privileges that we have come to take for granted.

As some of us wrestle with the question about when and how to open the church, we remember that there are those who have to wrestle with difficult decisions that affect the health and safety of much larger populations.

As we wander through the next few months, wondering what decisions to make, and how to respond to decisions that are made for us, the temptation will always be to succumb to the feeling that all seems well, that there is little disease about, and that we can relax into the way things were before 2020 dumped its ugly pandemic upon us.

But remember the Century Plant. We have not returned to normal. There was a reason for the missing two months. That feeling – the cognitive dissonance – the surreal displacement – is a reminder that things are not quite right in the world around us. We are certainly not yet in a situation where we can expect to be able to return to the way things were before 2020.

In fact, we may never return to the way things were then. In some ways that might be good for us. There has been a steady chorus of prophetic voices urging us to make the most of the opportunity to change our way of life, to adjust our lifestyle. We have been given an opportunity to effect change in our own lives as individuals, and as members of the various communities of which we are privileged to be members. Let’s make the most of the time to reflect and decide carefully.

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