Over the next few weeks, Iceland Review’s Ragnar Tómas will be publishing a series of articles on life in the time of COVID (click here to read part 1).
I came across the carcass of a redwing this morning.
Or at least I think it was a redwing. It was hardly recognisable, decomposing there in the flowerbed, below the glass panel of our backyard fence. Lulling my son to sleep in his carriage, walking back and forth, I conjectured that the bird had probably broken its neck on the glass, before a cat, or some other scavenger, had begun picking at its remains. It wasn’t the most dignified of farewells, although, you could argue, an elevated bed of flowers, partly shielded from the elements, is – among a species not known for burying its kind – not too shabby. Also, it had probably died swiftly.
The sick in New York City are not dying swiftly. Many of them, we are told, suffer alone, for days, before being unceremoniously interred into mass graves on Hart Island. These “unclaimed dead” lie next to Civil War soldiers, stillborn babies, and the homeless – hard to imagine a more pathetic fate. (According to the latest figures, over 34,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States – and more than 11,000 in New York City alone.)
Things aren’t as bad in Iceland – but it’s still not a particularly good time to die. With the authorities limiting public gatherings to 19 people, families of the recently departed must decide whether to hold sparse funerals or whether to postpone such ceremonies indefinitely (the restrictions will be eased on May 4, with 49 people being allowed to assemble legally). Other church services are undergoing a similar hiatus: confirmations, the majority of which are held during Easter, have been postponed; Sunday mass is suspended; and anyone hoping to get married in front of an adoring crowd of witnesses will have to defer their error to a later time.
We have a curious relationship with our national church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland is protected and supported by the state under Section VI of the Constitution. Over 65% of us belong to the National Church (over 90% to Christian churches generally). Nine out of our ten children are baptised. And 99% of our funerals take place within church walls (not to mention that a considerable portion of our taxes is funnelled directly into the institution). Compare these figures to those of a survey conducted in 2016, which revealed that 0.0% of Icelanders 25 years or younger believed that God created the universe; that only 36% of Christians believed in God, Jesus, the resurrection, and eternal life; and that 60% wanted to expunge Section VI from the constitution.
These two sets of opposing facts speak to a bizarre, nation-wide cognitive dissonance. We allow the National Church to preside over the most significant events of our lives – births, weddings, funerals – even though the majority of us have little faith in this presiding party. Despite the relative benignancy of Icelandic Christianity – which has chosen to “mellow out and modernise,” as opposed to becoming more fundamentalist and fanatical, as a colleague recently observed – it yet originates from the same moral strain that has been the source of more than one misguided tragedy during the pandemic.
In South Korea, executives of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus may be held criminally responsible for the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country (they ignored the advice of medical professionals and went ahead with religious services). In Iran, the head of the Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom called on pilgrims to keep coming because it was a place to “heal from spiritual and physical diseases” (worsening the outbreak). In the US, Bishop Gerald Glenn, pastor of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Virginia, died from COVID-19 after having defied warnings about the danger of religious gatherings. Before his death, he is to have said, “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.”
A pandemic will do strange things to you. We have witnessed the abrupt cessation of what seemed the unremitting workings of an ungovernable machine (author Andri Snær Magnason stated in March that he had thought it “unthinkable” to live at a time when the world effectively shut down). This sudden stoppage affords us the opportunity of examining the elements of that machinery – and inquiring which parts are worth keeping when the system reboots. I’m not sure if I’m ready to abandon handshakes. Not sure that I prefer to spend more time working from home. But I feel as prepared as ever to begin disentangling the Church of Iceland from the most meaningful strands of our lives.
We need a new God.