Covid vaccines are in the news. As I write on Friday, two new vaccines have shown successful results in clinical trials. Unfortunately, a new term has also entered into our vocabularies; “vaccine nationalism”, with the EU and Astra Zeneca embroiled in a row about supplies. This is not the place to pronounce on who is right and wrong, but it is depressing; the World Health Organisation has declared its concern over the possibilities of export controls being applied to vaccines. Science has given us the tools to fight the virus; sadly, by itself, it does not give us the wisdom to know how to share these. But, lost in the current war of words, is another story that I find even more challenging. On Monday, Norway announced that for every vaccine it administered to its own citizens, it would also donate a matching vaccine to go to a poor country. I admire this act, but I really am not sure if I would dare do it if I had power in this country. Leaving aside political consideration, is our death rate so high that we have a moral responsibility to first control our own epidemic? How do I judge between the lives of people in this country and elsewhere? I simply do not know and I am grateful I do not have to make these decisions. A colleague who I was talking to in the church about this dilemma pointed out that there are organisations such as Unicef that allow personal donations to worldwide covid vaccination programs via their websites (e.g. www.unicef.org.uk/donate/coronavirus/) and this is the best I can come up with in response to my own dilemma. We can at least celebrate the actions of nations such as Norway (and our own country in offering free facilities to characterise new versions of the virus from anywhere in the world) and companies such as Astra Zeneca who will supply their virus as cost-price to countries who cannot afford it, whilst pondering how best to act ourselves.
Rev David Poyner
I caught the end of the inauguration speech of the newly sworn president of the United States, Joe Biden. I found myself wishing I had heard it from the start. At least to my ears, he was speaking words to try and uplift and inspire his listeners, primarily the people of the USA, divided as rarely before. Now words can be double-edged; I have seen the grainy footage of the dictators of the 1930s, using their speeches to whip up hatred. Perhaps we do not need to go back that far to see examples of the same trick; the people known to the ancient Greeks as demagogues, who roused a mob with false promises so as to win easy popularity. What is important is what the words are based on. President Biden had gone to mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral shortly before the inauguration. In his speech he quoted St Augustine, “a saint of my church”, to talk about what can unite a people. And he quite openly led a short time of silent prayer for those 400,000 Americans who had died from Covid. It seems to me that Joe Biden’s words were based on his Christian faith and he was speaking from that in an open way that no politician in this country would attempt.
None of this is to say that President Biden will be a good leader of his country; I am not competent to make any prediction about that. But I do think he is sure of his own moral compass; he knows the direction of travel he ought to be following and he has the courage to make that known. Perhaps there is something here that we can note; what is our compass based on and are we confident enough in that to declare it to others?
Rev David Poyner
The Wise Men and Brexit.
As everyone knows from the carol, Christmas has 12 days, culminating in a spectacular display of gymnastics by a group of peers. In the dark days of late December and early January, particularly in former times, any excuse for a celebration would have been welcome. But eventually holidays have to come to an end and the normal round has to be resumed. The church moves on, but with one last moment of celebration before the time of horse-hair shirts and self-denial/general misery that is Lent in the popular imagination. This is Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus and it is the season we are now in.
The story of the Wise Men is perhaps best known from the carol, “We three Kings of Orient are” with the “star of wonder, star of might, star of royal beauty bright, westward leading”. The star periodically comes in the news as people speculate about what might have been the basis for the story; an alignment of two planets perhaps? This year, had anything been visible, we could have seen such an alignment on December 21st. This speculation is interesting in its own way, but to me it seems to miss the most important part of the story. We only find the account of the visit of the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel and he is at pains to point out that they are not Jews. They come from the east. The Jews living in Palestine when Matthew wrote had survived numerous attempts to wipe them out; they had experienced deportation and had been living under foreign occupation for centuries. They had survived by closing in on themselves, rejecting foreign influences to preserve their own culture and faith, sustained by the hope that at some point God would step in and send them a saviour to rescue them. In some stories in the Gospels, Jesus seems lukewarm about reaching out to non-Jews. But in this story, at the very start of his Gospel, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is for all humanity. Matthew was a Jew, he wrote his Gospel for his fellow Jews, but from the first word, he grasps the Jesus came to break down barriers, not reinforce them. In the early days of a New Year, a year in which Brexit has finally been done, Epiphany reminds us of the revolutionary message, that God reaches out to all.
Rev David Poyner