Touch in and out of times of Covid.
A couple of weeks ago, my attention was caught by a news item about research on the importance of touch. It seems that during lock-down, one of things that people living alone most missed was being touched by loved ones. Perhaps this should not have come as surprise. Touch is at the centre of many deep emotional experiences, from what the prayer book rather coyly calls the “tenderness of sexual union”, the hug between a parent and child to holding someone’s hand in illness or as they leave this life. It also has more negative associations; it is used to assert power over another person, to abuse and dominate them. Jesus knew the importance of touch; when he healed people there was invariably physical content. Sometimes, as with the case of the woman with menstrual bleeding, the initiative came from the person who wanted to be healed; for such people, it was enough to just touch his clothing.
Perhaps in recognition of the importance of physical contact, the Church of England service of Holy Communion has space where people can offer each other “a sign of peace”; in most congregations, this means shaking hands, embracing or even kissing others in the congregation. This needs to be done with sensitivity; I feel uncomfortable about being overly intimate with a person I do not know well, but it does have powerful symbolism when carried out appropriately.
But now, for most of us, touch is back off the agenda. As the second wave of Covid begins to bite and the range of our permitted contacts shrink, we again must find ways of caring at a physical distance. I have no answers to this, other than to suggest that it makes it all the more important to keep in contact with those around us; speaking in person if that is safe and lawful, otherwise by phone, letter or computer. These cannot replace physical touch, but it is the best that we can do. Perhaps we can take some comfort for the fact that for the past 2000 years, God has used virtual touch to reach out to people!