September Trustee Indaba by Peter Neil - 'We All Breathe the Same Air'

18 September 2020

Peter Neil's Indaba

CUAC Trustee Indaba -- 9th September 2020

Meetings of CUAC’s Voting Trustees begin with an Indaba from a board member reflecting on their experiences in Anglican higher education to open sharing and discussion. 

The Revd Canon Professor Peter Neil, Vice Chancellor

Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK

I do like the fact that we use a very precise word to describe what we do in this item of the agenda, calling it an Indaba.  This South African word, in addition to meaning a ‘discussion or conference’, can also mean that it is something belonging to us - e.g., ‘that’s my indaba not yours’; in other words, it is none of your business.  This might be contrasted with another African concept, that of ubuntu (which I may have referred to before) which is characterised as ‘humanity’ or, in other words:  ‘I am who I am because of who you are’, indicating the inter-relatedness of human beings.  

I won’t apologise for referring to the current context because it has become rather all-consuming internationally and it is affecting every aspect of life. 

I want to bring to our thoughts another word, from another language, namely Hebrew, and that is Ruach, spirit or breath. And Ruach goes to the heart of creation and to the heart, literally, of life itself. It was Ruach which hovered over the deep in Genesis 1.

What I am fascinated about at the moment is the focus on breath and breathing and of course the whole focus on life and staying alive.  Of course, this pandemic is very real and we need to adhere to the national government and medical guidance on protecting ourselves and others. In relation to the virus, a throw-away comment was made by one news reporter that ‘the thing we don’t even think about, breathing, is affected by this virus’ or words to that effect.  I have suffered from asthma since I was young and I could have assured him that not a day goes by without my being aware of my breathing, whether I can breathe or whether I can’t;  whether the pollen count is high or whether I am in a room with feathers.  I suffer at home because I am very allergic to cats but two cats have ingratiated themselves into my life and I have to make a choice of breathing or cats; I choose the latter and work on the breathing.

What the current situation has drawn attention to is the fact that we are all breathing to live, we are all breathing the same air and that what we breathe out can, and does, affect others round about.  It is as if the world has just woken up to the fact that we are all dependent on the air around us for our life.  And just as the world is recognising it, the panic is on how to STOP breathing the same air as others - with the ubiquitous requirement to wear a mask or face covering somehow to stop others being affected by the by-product of our breathing.  I think this is a very good illustration of ubuntu or the opposite (perhaps the phrase un-ubuntu exists?) in practice at a time when we are desperately trying to stop others being themselves so that we can survive.  Or we are being told the opposite, i.e. we need to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others

When I contacted my local health centre to ask what I had to do to demonstrate that I had underlying health issues and therefore would want to claim exemption from wearing a mask, the doctor said to me: ‘this is not about you;  you are doing it for others, not for yourself’.  I did want to reply - ‘well I think breathing is a pre-requisite for doing anything for anyone’.  But I held my breath!  But this is affecting everything - we have to wear masks in church so that we no longer can see people’s face;  the priest distributes the host looking like something out of a sinister hospital horror movie and it was only recently that the choir was allowed to sing but the congregation was strictly forbidden to join in.  We are being gagged all under the guise of protecting others, not ourselves.  But in reality, I have never seen such a display of the opposite.

Throughout the crisis there has been very little said about what all of this is designed to prevent in the worst cases, namely death from the virus.  Angela Tilby, who is Canon Emeritus at Christ Church Oxford, commented in the Church Times that we have heard very little from Church leaders about death and life after death, except to say that death is a very bad thing and how to avoid it. Media vita in moritis sumus [in the midst of life we are in death] is not recognised.

I have felt it necessary to say to staff that no matter what precautions are put in place - distancing, masks, one-way systems, sanitisers etc. they are still not going to be safe; life is not safe.  It seemed rather counter-intuitive to close churches and prevent face-to-face worship to protect people.  It was in the rather unexpected voice that we heard it said ‘get back to places of worship; at this time, we need more prayer than at any other time’ - and that was not from the church leaders. 

Ruach also came to mind in the tragedy surrounding George Floyd with all the aftermath from that; he said ‘I can’t breathe’ and he literally had the breath squeezed out of him.  Those of us who have breathing difficulties could empathise with the panic that must have created in him and we just cannot imagine the agony of his last moments. But that whole episode has resulted in world-wide recognition of the value of all human life and of the inextricable relationship between breath and life and also the inter-relatedness of us all in the human race no matter what our origin, colour or belief system.

I wonder if society in general will remember the inter-dependence we all had, or whether it will be like the society of the pied piper of Hamlen which forgot the rats, failed to pay its dues to the piper and forfeited the next generation and subsequent generations to oblivion as the youngsters danced to a different tune and followed false promises.  I think we are all called to remind others of the preciousness of life, of the precariousness of life and of the imperative to appreciate the lives of others and the role we play in the lives of others.  I will certainly be emphasising this point at our forthcoming on-line matriculation ceremony when our new students join the BGU community.

I am reading a small book by Rowan Williams entitled: God with us: The meaning of the cross and resurrection -- Then and now.  I found words of wisdom and encouragement in this which I find particularly relevant to us as we move out of COVID.  And in many ways emerging from this crisis is like a type of resurrection, a re-awakening when we are much more aware of our humanity and our ubuntu.  Williams’ words could have been written for today:

In a sub-section (p 87) entitled ‘The world has changed’ he writes this:  To believe that the world can change, that God can turn history on its pivot, is to believe that in all sorts of human situations it is possible for things to be different.  And I think that’s the basis of all the ways in which Christians are regularly and systematically a nuisance to those who want a tidy world.

I feel that we who have a Christian faith and are in positions of responsibility have to reclaim the etymology of the root of the verb ‘to inspire’, to breathe life into, and that following this crisis we should be inspiring those we work with and those we influence to take stock and to consider how we might change and live differently from now on and for those of us who are Christians to live in the reality of the Resurrection, for a better society, aware of our dependence on each other, for our well-being and for the well-being of the world in its entirety.