With cases of coronavirus in the UK rising each day, the challenges posed to health services, workplaces, vital national infrastructure, and the social and communal fabric of our lives come to the forefront of our attention. It is already apparent that the economic impact of the virus as it spreads will be felt worldwide, with growth forecasts downgraded and travel and tourism industries braced for a significant hit. The full effect on human life, already significant, is yet unknown.

Across the UK85 cases had been confirmed as of Wednesday, 4 March. This is a relatively small number compared to the 80,000 so far confirmed in China and the further 10,000 in other countries around the world. It will probably never be known how accurate these figures are, with the BBC reporting that infectious disease specialists suspect that as many as two thirds of cases in China have not been detected and recorded. In Italy more than 2,000 people have tested positive, with more than 70 deaths. Iran has taken drastic measures, including releasing tens of thousands of prisoners because of the spread of the disease, while Saudi Arabia has banned foreign visitors to the pilgrimages at Mecca and Medina. 

What is clear is that, as a society, we will likely experience significant upheaval as a result of this health crisis. In 2009/10 the swine flu pandemic (the last virus to be officially termed a pandemic by the World Health Organisation) was a very mild strain of flu and despite its global spread had low morbidity rates compared to seasonal flu. Early indications suggest that the novel coronavirus is significantly more dangerous, especially to those with underlying health conditions, and is spread more easily. 

The idea of containing a disease in our major cities is certainly a challenge. Most weeks I will travel through four of London’s top 10 busiest stations, stations that see up to 1.5 million passengers each week. The connections we have around the country and across the world make tackling the spread of the virus more difficult, especially if we are trying to mitigate the economic consequences. 

Knowing that there may be significant consequences is different to worrying about them.

The Government’s guidance at present is that large scale gatherings can go ahead, and stringent hygiene precautions are being encouraged. For local churches hygiene and common sense are at the top of suggested action. We’ve put together some guidance and advice for churches on how to respond, and this will be updated if there are significant changes to government advice. 

But is this really the extent of the church’s response to coronavirus, to have antibacterial hand gel available for people before taking communion? And to provide pastoral support to people in self-isolation over the phone or by Skype instead of in person?

Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity looked at how the response of the early church to the plagues in Rome was integral to the growth of the church. He quotes the early bishop Dionysius saying: Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…”

It’s not that Christians should throw sense to the wind or ignore advice. It’s certainly not that the communion cup contains special powers that prevent germs being transmitted. But it is a determination that in a world gripped by fear of what might be, the church should be the non-anxious presence that witnesses to the peace of Christ that lives in us. 

Many communities will feel the impact if more stringent restrictions on travel and gathering are placed in coming weeks and months. Proposals to close schools will affect parents being able to work. If towns are put into lockdown as has occurred in Italy, panic buying and food shortages may occur. 

Let us be the non-anxious presences that speaks of the Prince of Peace and His wonderful coming kingdom.

As churches across the UK we should be sensible, but we should continue meeting, we should continue serving our community, and we should continue to share the good news of Jesus with our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours. Technology can be a useful tool to serve those who are unable or unwilling, or for whom it is inadvisable to be in contact with other people, but we shouldn’t unnecessarily distance ourselves from those in greatest need.

In many communities the church is the first to arrive and the last to leave. It notices challenges before statutory services are mobilised and it remains committed when funding might dry up. The church is the embodied witness to the resurrected Christ, through the lives of men and women committed to following in His steps and living in His likeness. 

Walking through London Bridge station I realised the irony of calls for isolation, or the novel idea of self-isolation’. In places with so many people around we can still be isolated, cut off from human connection and starved of relationship. We should not be careless or aid the spread of the virus, but we should think of our motivation. Are we formed by fear of what might be or fuelled by hope of who God is and what He can do? How can we speak peace to the panic buyers of anti-bacterial gel and the afraid-to get-on-the-train commuters? 

And we must pray. Pray for medical professionals, and government decision makers. Pray for those who are already isolated and concerned about cutting off vital connections. Pray for people who are at greater risk of more significant consequences of becoming infected. Pray for miracles. And pray for the witness of the church of Jesus Christ. 

How can we speak life into those who are already isolated, those who are alone, and those fearful that this might affect them particularly acutely?