We are entering a ‘New Normal’. This is an opportunity for the church to provide leadership, including cutting back on optional activities such as leisure flying.
This BBC report to do with the Virgin Atlantic airline raises the question as to whether or not we should bail out large industries with public funds. But specifically with regard to the airlines, is it appropriate to rescue them given the fact that they are a major contributor toward global warming?
A theme of this series is that we are entering a ‘New Normal’ as a result of the current pandemic. The world has changed irreversibly — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’. The situation provides the church with an opportunity to provide much-needed leadership. One aspect of such leadership could be to do with reducing our profligate lifestyle. We know that we are on a non-sustainable trajectory — we are entering an Age of Limits. Resource depletion, climate change, biosphere destruction, population overshoot — the litany is tedious and familiar. (The sketch shows some of the elements of the Age of Limits.)
The airline industry provides a good example of how we might use the current situation to change our trajectory.
Introduced in 1958, the Boeing 707 ushered in the jet age. Air travel was no longer a prerogative of the rich. Families and businesspeople could now routinely travel to distant locations at a reasonable cost. But we have also learned in the intervening years that air traffic is a major contributor toward environmental problems, particularly climate change and noise pollution. We have also learned during this pandemic that we actually don’t need mass air travel — any more than we needed it prior to the introduction of the Boeing 707. Business people have learned that they can conduct much of their work remotely, and families have learned that overseas vacations are something that are nice to have, but far from essential.
What will happen to air travel once the pandemic is brought under control? Will we return to the old ways? We know that airplanes are a major contributor toward climate change — can we take this opportunity to permanently cut back on air travel, and return the industry to where it was before the Boeing 707 and other airplanes created the situation we had immediately prior to the pandemic? We don’t know the future course of the pandemic. But we do know that it would be an enormous shame, even tragedy, if we cannot use this opportunity to live a reduced lifestyle, including less use of air travel.
For people of faith, living a reduced lifestyle should not be a challenge. Indeed, we are still in the Easter season — a time of the ultimate sacrifice. We know that we, as a society, need to cut back pollution and that we need to get to grips with climate change. Maybe we should voluntarily limit our use of air travel to what it was before 1958 — something that is a privilege, not something that we take for granted.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
This is the fourth post in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ that has been thrust upon us by the pandemic. The posts consider how people of faith and churches are being affected by the changes that are taking place, and also the opportunities for church leadership that these changes provide. An assumption behind all these posts is that there will indeed be a ‘New Normal’ — the ‘Old Normal’ is not returning. We cannot suddenly lay off more than 22 million people in just a few weeks in the United States alone and expect our economies simply to snap back to where they were. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that the pandemic is still in its early stages. Some communities may believe that they have peaked, but there is every reason to believe that second and third waves of the disease could follow. (Some of the economic issues to do with the pandemic are discussed in a parallel series of posts entitled ‘The New PSM Normal’, where the letters PSM stand for Process Safety Management. The first post in that series is The New PSM Normal — Deflation.)
The distress, anxiety and economic devastation created by this pandemic provides an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. As we will discuss in future posts, science and technology seem to have met their nemesis – a new type of leadership and way of living is called for. But it is also interesting to see how the pandemic has affected the church in just a few short weeks, and to think about what the church of the future may look like. Therefore, in this post I would like to consider the sudden and unanticipated rise in the ‘Virtual Church’.
I am a member of a medium-sized Episcopal church. In response to the pandemic our church, like so many others, has totally reorganized its worship services and the manner in which it conducts its internal meetings. Services are transmitted using Facebook Live; meetings are held using Zoom or equivalent software. Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been ahead of the curve from the beginning as described in the post The New Normal (3) — Thrift, Frugality and Fasting. Now the diocese has now instructed us not to use our church premises at all. So, video services (such as this one) are now transmitted from the priest’s home. Participation from the music director and lay readers has been through the use of pre-recorded videos or audio clips that are spliced into the order of worship. (The videos are recorded and edited by the priest’s wife, so there are no physical distancing issues to worry about.)
Virtual church services are not new, of course, but the pandemic has suddenly made them a near-universal fixture. So here’s where we (and so many other churches) stand.
Our Sunday morning service is transmitted live from the priest’s study. It recorded so that people can view it later.
Our regular Wednesday morning service continues in the same manner.
Each day, except for Sunday, we have a shot noon-time prayer service, also transmitted live.
As we started this effort I anticipated that “attendance” at these services would go down; worship depends interaction between people, community singing and on the physical eucharist. I expected that, if people could not meet other people and physically participate in the service, then they would drift away. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Attendance at our virtual church services is much higher than it was when people had to physically show up. An informal review on the internet suggests that our experience is not unusual, many other churches have seen an increase in participation.
I am both encouraged and somewhat surprised at these results. One of the reasons for my surprise is that many of our regular attendees are toward the older end of the age spectrum and so, I would have thought, are not so adept at using video technology. This point of view may be incorrect. Many of these older members have children and grandchildren scattered around the country so they have been using video services to meet with their families for years.
Doubtless many people will be conducting formal studies that examine how the church has changed in the last few weeks. Here are a few initial thoughts.
No Going Back
I started this post by saying that we will not return to the ‘Old Normal’. What the ‘New Normal’ will look like is anyone’s guess, but virtual worship in one form or another is an integral part of our future.
In recent weeks, many organizations have found that working from home is viable for much of what they do. Those organizations whose policies required people to show up at the office are going to be under considerable pressure to reconsider those policies. The same applies to church services and meetings. Until now, virtual church services have, in general, been something of an add-on to the physical service. That will no longer be the case — indeed the opposite may happen. The church building will become more like a studio than a traditional church.
Quality vs. Quantity
Although we can count the number of people who are participating in our virtual services, it is much more difficult to assess the quality of that participation. When someone is sitting in the pews they may not be paying much attention, indeed they may be day-dreaming, but at least we know that they are present. When they attend a virtual service we do not know what else they may be doing. Is he or she also answering emails, playing a video game or browsing the news channels? We don’t know.
The person leading the service can also see which parts of the service are the most popular and meaningful by keeping an eye on the people who are coming and going at different times.
As the church community has shrunk many churches face a chronic challenge: how to finance the maintenance of large buildings that are too big for today’s smaller congregations. Virtual services may provide an answer. Churches will be able to maintain their service and mission to the community without needing those buildings. The church can move into a small office, and conduct its business from there.
Convenience and Practicality
A virtual church can attract those who cannot attend a physical church. They include the disabled, the house-bound, those traveling on business (not such a large group these days), shift workers, caregivers and those without transportation.
The pandemic is causing many people to think about more fundamental values. Such people may be reluctant to enter a traditional church building — indeed, for many of them such an environment brings back bad memories. But they may be willing to join a virtual service, especially if they feel that they are not just being preached at.
Age of Limits
The posts at this blog are to do with the long-term effects of what we refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ — resource depletion, climate change and population overshoot. The current pandemic has reminded us that we are not in control of the natural world; indeed, “Nature Bats Last”. Yet many aspects of our ‘Old Normal’ have not changed in recent weeks. For example, we still have the electricity we need to power our virtual devices and the raw materials such as lithium that are needed to manufacture those devices are in supply. If the time comes when resources such as these are not provided then our virtual church will have to shut down, and we will have to revert to physical meetings.
Just before the virus hit we toured Israel. Part of the visit was to drive around the Sea of Galilee. This was the area where Jesus conducted much of his ministry. We also visited Qumran and saw the desert areas that are part of the Bible story. As I looked at the hills from which Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the desert areas where he fasted I wondered what he and the other religious leaders of biblical times would have thought about how we are worshiping now. It’s a long way from there to the modern virtual church. Are we doing the right thing?
Spring is Sprung
We are trying to practice what we preach. We have cut some asparagus this spring. Here a picture of our first fruits of 2020; two radishes. The lettuce, cabbage, peas, potatoes, leek, onions, blueberries and (in the greenhouse) bush beans and tomatoes are looking great. Just don’t tell the critters in our neighborhood.
If you are making masks, we found the plan provided in the New York Times (and other newspapers) to be useful. We used old pillow cases for the fabric. Medical-quality masks have a metal strip at the top. The NYT design does not, but we found that a pipe cleaner inserted does the job well. (If you don’t smoke a pipe but do have children you may find that they used pipe cleaners in some of their projects.)
Rumor has it that there was a Virginia law that prohibited anyone from wearing a mask when entering a bank, and that they have had to change the law. It turns out that the rumor is not true; nevertheless it is still a good idea not to be masked like this before going into a bank.
One of the themes of this blog is that the crises we face provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. We have an excellent example of such leadership here in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
The State governor, Ralph Northam, is a physician who served as an officer in the Army Medical Corps for six years. Therefore, he understands the peril in which we find ourselves. He was one of the first governors to take aggressive action as the disease started to spread. For example, very early on he shut down the public school and college systems for the remainder of the academic year.
Our bishop, Susan Goff, has been even more assertive. She shut down virtually all church services and meetings even before Governor Northam’s action. This week she closed all church offices, even those that have only one or two people in them.
The “New Normal”
This is the third in a series of posts to do with what the “New Normal” may look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, and how the church may provide leadership in the coming recession (possibly depression). The first post in the series — Community — suggested that our economies will become more localized. The church, particularly those churches organized around the parish concept, can help develop such communities. The second post — No Debt — discusses the role that debt plays in our society. It suggests that, if we are indeed entering a Depression, then we may come to regard being in debt as being wrong, even immoral.
Related to the idea of avoiding debt are the concepts of thrift and frugality. I found various definitions for the those words; in this post I will use them as follows.
Someone is thrifty is they do not spend more money than they earn. They live within their means.
Someone is frugal if they spend significantly less money than they earn. They save money and buy something only when they have sufficient cash to purchase it. Frugality may involve some degree of sacrifice, as during the Lenten season. (An example of frugality is to do with the current shortage of toilet paper. A thrifty person busy only what he or she needs and uses what they have sparingly. A frugal person uses newspaper. It is not as comfortable, neither is it flushable, but it works.)
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.
Going beyond frugality is the concept of intentional fasting, a feature of most of the world’s religions.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
One of the lessons that this virus-induced current recession and its associated mass unemployment has taught us is the importance of having savings. It is estimated that more than half of all Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and about a quarter of Americans have no savings at all. In some cases this lack of savings may be unavoidable. For example, if someone is chronically unemployed for health reasons then they cannot realistically save money. But one has to wonder how many of the people with such low reserves were spending money on discretionary activities such as eating in restaurants or making the payments on a late model automobile. If and when their income returns these people may decide to permanently cut back on some of this discretionary spending.
An internet story illustrates what may happen. Before the crisis one man used to go to the hairdresser twice a month to have his hair cut and trimmed. Now, with physical distancing in force, his wife cuts his hair instead. He is wondering about making this change permanent, thereby saving $40 per month.
I came across an opportunity to be thrifty a few days ago. I was clearing out a small part of our back yard that I had intentionally let go wild. What I had not anticipated was that bamboo plants, which are very invasive, would establish themselves in that area. I decided that they had to be removed before they crowded out all the other plants. Normally I would have cut them down and dumped them in the town’s recycle truck. But, at the same time as I was cutting the bamboo shoots I was also planting English peas. The peas need something to climb on, so I used the bamboo shoots as shown in the picture. Waste not, want not. (Now I have to make sure that those shoots do not put out roots and start to spread.)
The example of the bamboo shoots illustrates another aspect of thrift. It is not always about large programs and big gestures; it is often to do with small actions, all of which add up to make a bigger picture.
It is unfortunate that our financial systems discourage saving. Interest rates are close to zero, the stock market is erratic (to put it mildly) and bonds can be risky in a time of financial crisis. And there is always the potential for high inflation that would wipe out much of the money that was saved. After all, our governments continue to issue staggering amounts of debt with no plan as how they intend to pay it off. One way of doing so would be to through high inflation. Still, even a difficult savings environment is better than going into debt.
Last week we saw that the Bible does not forbid us from being in debt, but it does discourage the practice. So it is with thrift and frugality. These are practices to be encouraged, if only because they make the occasional lavish expenditure even more noticeable.
Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.
The above discussion has been to do with the behavior and actions of individuals and of relatively small organizations such as the Episcopal church. But the same need for thrift, i.e., living within one’s means, applies also to national economies. In an April 2020 newspaper article The debt reckoning has finally arrived Robert Samuelson argues that nations should balance their budgets and create a surplus in normal times. Then, when a crisis such as COVID-19 hits, they can use massive debt to bring the economy back to life. But, for the last five decades, the United States government has run large deficits on the “something for nothing” philosophy — we can enjoy the benefits of government spending without needing to raise taxes to pay for those benefits. The upshot is that we do not have the financial reserves needed to pay for the sudden deficit spending needed in crises such as the one we are living through. We have wasted our ammunition.
Opportunity for the Church
One of the themes of this blog is that the changing and rather scary times in which we are living provide an opportunity for the church to provide much-needed leadership. In this and in previous posts it is suggested that that such leadership will include the following elements,
Develop and lead local communities;
Discourage the use of debt; and
Encourage thrift, and frugality.
We will also need a theology that matches the “New Normal”, the post-COVID-19 world. The example I keep coming back to that of Augustine of Hippo. He and other church fathers lived at a time when the western Roman Empire was in terminal decline and society was entering a time that we now rather disparagingly refer to as the Dark Ages. In response to this long-term crisis they developed a theology based on the concept of a City of God — an eternal city that is greater than any City of Man. The theologians of our time will need to work out how faith addresses a time of resource depletion, climate change, population overshoot and long-term economic decline.
I also keep thinking of my grandfather who said that going into debt was not just a bad financial decision, it was immoral (The New Normal (2) — No Debt). He was making a theological statement.
Industrial Safety Management
For those of you who work in industry the corona virus is having an effect as to how we all think of safety. Therefore, I have started another series of weekly posts to do with the New Normal and the discipline of Process Safety Management. The first post is The New PSM Normal (1) — Deflation.
This is the second post in a series that discusses what the “New Normal” might look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. In the first post — The New Normal (1) – Community — I suggested that our economies are likely to become more localized and our supply chains shorter. Should that turn out to be the case then the Church has an opportunity to provide leadership, particularly those churches that are organized around the parish principle.
In this post I would like to consider the issue of debt. My grandfather and his family suffered during the 1930s as the economies of the world entered what the British called the Slump and Americans call the Great Depression. It was a time of deflation, which meant that people’s income dropped, often drastically, but their mortgage payments and other debts remained. Consequently, many people in my grandfather’s generation learned to abhor debt. He felt so strongly its dangers that to him being in debt was not just a risk/reward financial decision, it was morally wrong.
How the world has changed since his time. The chart at the head of this post shows U.S. federal debt for the last 30 years. In 1990 it was $4 trillion. By 2019 it was up to $23 trillion. What it will be by the end of the year 2020 given all the stimulus programs that are being proposed is anyone’s guess. But it is bound to be a new record — by a large margin. And it’s not just governments that have run up huge financial obligations. Individuals have bought into the same mind set; credit card debt, student debt, mortgages — the list goes on.
We are now entering a time of deflation, similar to that of the 1930s (see Church Leadership). Goods and services will be available. But, because so many people will be unemployed, there will not be sufficient money to buy those goods and services. Hence factories and service companies will cut back some more, hence more people will lose their jobs, and so on and so on. But the debts that we have taken on, both individually and as a society, will not go away. Hard times for all and bankruptcy for some lie ahead.
An additional problem is that the fractional banking system allows banks to use one asset to secure more than one loan. Each asset provides collateral for multiple loans. At a time when many loans are being called in at one time this policy means that it will not be possible to pay them all.
Even before the current crisis we were seeing problems with the effectiveness of debt. Economic growth has to be based on the growth of resources and the efficiency with which those resources are used. In recent years real growth has slowed or even stopped. Therefore, nations all over the world have responded by increasing debt levels. They are using future debt to pay today’s debt. In other words, they are using the wealth of their children to pay for their current life style. No wonder young people such as Greta Thunberg are so angry. Not only are we not paying our own bills, we are accumulating debts for our children to pay with money that they won’t have.
In a November 2018 Forbes article A Worldwide Debt Default Is A Real Possibility John Maudlin talks about the failure of ‘debt productivity’.
. . . debt is losing its ability to stimulate growth. In 2017, one dollar of non-financial debt generated only 40 cents of GDP in the US. It’s even less elsewhere. This is down from more than four dollars of growth for each dollar of debt 50 years ago.
This has seriously worsened over the last decade. China’s debt productivity dropped 42.9% between 2007 and 2017. That was the worst among major economies, but others lost ground, too. All the developed world is pushing on the same string and hoping for results.
Now, if you are used to using debt to stimulate growth, and debt loses its capacity to do so, what happens next? You guessed it: The brilliant powers-that-be add even more debt. This is classic addiction behavior. You have to keep raising the dose to get the same high.
His conclusion is that there will be what he calls a Great Reset.
. . . we will have to deal, one way or another, with the largest twin bubbles in the history of the world: global debt, especially government debt, and the even larger bubble of government promises. We are talking about debt and unfunded promises to the tune of multiple hundreds of trillions of dollars – vastly larger than global GDP.
The Bible does not tell us that being in debt is always a sin. But it does warn us about the dangers of debt and its part in the sin of worshiping money.
The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Maybe my grandfather was more radical than he need have been. But, it does seem to make sense that we should stay out of debt as much as we can in the coming years.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything. Even after the disease has run its course society will not return to the way it was — we are entering a “new normal”. This is the first in a series of posts that discusses what that new normal may look like and how the church may respond. The pandemic may , not just to what is taking place now, but also to the long-term impact of climate change.
At the time of writing, the pandemic is still increasing in scope. Countries such as China and Italy may have passed their peak (although there is always the possibility of a second wave). But many other countries are still on a rising curve of infections and mortality. We don’t know yet just how severe the final impact may be, or even how long the pandemic will last. Therefore any estimate as to what the new normal may look like is something of a conjecture. But some aspects are becoming apparent. For example, it is unlikely that the tourist industry will ever fully recover. We take a vacation in order to relax, to have fun and to experience new places. But, since vacations usually involve mingling with large numbers of strangers, many people will choose to take time off near their home because being near to so many strangers makes them uneasy. Such decisions have a ripple effect. For example, I live in a small town. A high proportion of the town’s tax income comes from the hotels and restaurants in the area. So we have to consider how the decline in tax revenue will affect funding of the police department and other local services.
In this first post to do with the new normal I would like to consider the issue of “social distancing”. We have been told by government authorities to keep at least six feet or two meters away from other people so that we do not infect one another. People seem to be heeding this instruction well. (There are exceptions, such as the pastor in Florida who insisted on holding church services. He is now under arrest.)
The instruction has forced churches to stop holding meetings involving more than two or three people. But the fact that we are forced to physically stay away from one another does not mean that we cannot communicate by telephone and video. In some respects, this pandemic seems to have actually improved social interaction within the church community. Indeed, our bishop has asked us to use the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing”. Churches have been forced to conduct worship services on line and, if my own experience is representative, “attendance” at those services has been good. The situation has also encouraged church members to reach out by phone, video and social media to those members who are shut in or who are in forced isolation. Whether this trend toward increased social interaction will continue is anyone’s guess. But it does point to a bigger lesson with respect to climate change and other ‘Age of Limits’ issues. (In my area we had no snow this winter and the month of March was unusually warm — climate change has not gone away.)
In response to the long-term crises to do with climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot I suggest that the most effective response will be to develop local communities and shorter supply chains.
The development of community presents an opportunity for the church — particularly those churches that operate on a parish system. The church becomes a center of the community. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs may be — if you live within the physical bounds of the parish then you are part of the community.
The lessons we are learning now about communicating with one another in a time of crisis can provide valuable guidance as to how to build community for the new and rather scary world that is heading our way.