The Prayerbook of the Church of England used to have these words in the Litany:
“ From plague, pestilence and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.”
The recent revisions of the prayerbook resulted in the litany being altered to this:
“From famine and disaster, from violence, murder and dying unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.”
Spot the difference? Why the changes, I wonder? Why, in particular, did we remove the mention of plague and pestilence in our set prayers? After all, that is the prayer I want to pray over and over at this present time: From plague and pestilence, Good Lord, deliver us.
Yes, I admit the words sound a little archaic. Plague and pestilence sound like they belong in the Middle Ages. But that is perhaps part of our present problem. Maybe we have been in some sort of privileged denial of the continuing threat of plague and pestilence. We have forgotten how threatening these things are. And we have become uneasy with these words which were rightly associated with seasons of dread. Our prayers have become more sanitised than our world.
Not everyone in this world has forgotten the need for this prayer. Brothers and sisters in The Congo and West Africa, who have endured recent outbreaks of Ebola will have been glad to keep the prayer in. In January the East Asian nations were ready with their face masks and their testing regimes because they had recent memory of SARS. Serious and deadly infectious diseases are a normal thing in our world. But maybe for a few decades we have been cushioned from what is normal. And it has disappeared from our prayerbook.
Another reason why 20th Century liturgical revisers may have written out plague and pestilence is that they might have been infected by a modernist overconfidence in our human capacity. Scientists and doctors are expected to come up with the answers. They often do. But wiser scientists and doctors are quick to acknowledge how limited is their knowledge. Humanism has duped us. We have tended to put our faith in Good doctor, deliver us and have foolishly ditched the prayer Good Lord, deliver us.
It is so many of our doctors and nurses who have been on the frontline of caring for people with this deadly disease, and in the most vulnerable position of catching it themselves. Their courage is rightly lauded as well as their faithfulness to their noble calling. But even as they hear our noisy appreciation, they may also help us appreciate our unrealistic expectation that they have the panacea for all ills. In the end the Lord is our deliverer. Better that we call on the Good Lord to deliver us.
It is the Lord who gives. And the Lord takes away as well, but He delights to give. And so many people in our world bless His name. Our 21st Century existence can seem so sophisticated and we depend on so many human supply chains. It is easy to overlook our dependence on God. Sometimes it takes something like our present crisis to humble humanity and remind us all that we depend on our Maker, more than we know.
Political leaders may even be slightly enjoying the crisis as it gives them more executive power, but this is not what they’re thinking underneath, which is ‘What do we do?’ ‘Is there any way out?’ ‘We’re all in the dark’. It is the time to sing ‘Help of the helpless, O abide with me,’ as our leaders do sing every November. And it’s such a valuable lesson, which goes alongside the other valuable lessons we are learning in these times of trouble.
Our lives are a fragile gift from a faithful God, who holds us in His everlasting arms.
With my prayerful good wishes to you and everyone. From plague and pestilence, Good Lord deliver us.
I discovered this piece from The Gospel Coalition, quoting one of the most insightful Christian writers of the Twentieth Century, whose BBC radio programmes during the dark times of World War Two had 1.5 million listeners.
On the next page, we give some of the procedures we have put in place, to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to help protect the most vulnerable in our community. But here is a timeless commentary to put the potential threat into some sort of perspective. Times of fear come on all generations. But those who fear God need not fear anything else. God’s perfect love casts out fear.
It’s now clear that COVID-19 is a deadly serious global pandemic, and all necessary precautions should be taken. Still, C. S. Lewis’s words—written 72 years ago—ring with some relevance for us. Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus.”
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxFmkg5dcyk]
At the time I write, the C of E has just issued its guidelines for churches and the government has indicated we have moved from the ‘contain’ stage to the ‘delay’ stage, admitting the virus will spread widely, and focussing efforts on slowing it down.
At St Luke’s, the Church Council is encouraging everyone to follow the guidelines in order to help slow the transmission of the disease, to help protect the vulnerable amongst us and to help those badly affected by the illness or the isolation or the economic hardship. The advice is changing regularly but as of 14th March we were:
- Asking those feeling unwell to stay at home
- Asking people to greet one another without touch or close proximity
- Having one-use service sheets instead of prayerbooks
- Leaving the collection plate at the door
- Simplifying communion by all standing at the rail, offering only bread
- Providing for regular washing or alcohol hand-rub
- Accepting no bellringing for the moment
- Planning phone calls and texts to keep in touch with the self-isolating
- Joining village initiatives to help the needy
Thank you so much for your care and cooperation.
It is a strange and disturbing backdrop for the season of Holy Week and Easter. But there again, the first Easter was a profoundly disturbing time. The cruel execution of the innocent Jesus, the despair of his followers, the fickle moodiness of the crowds, the scattering of God’s people. It was a time of suffering and death. It was the once and for all sacrifice which means that sin and death do not win. Jesus won the battle which means, if we rely on his victory and follow him, we need not fear.
Easter is worth celebrating all the more when the world’s troubles are heightened.
Important jobs are best done alongside colleagues.
For my first two months I have led all of the services and preached all of the sermons at St Luke’s (with the exception of Pulpit Swap Sunday). It has been helpful for me to learn St Luke’s foibles quickly. It has probably helped regulars to get to know me a bit more quickly. But I am pleased that the ministry of the Word is being shared a little in the coming months.
Not only will guest clergy like Rick Gates help out when I am away. But most encouragingly, there are three people within our congregations testing a calling with us.
Tim Fryer has been a church member for quite a few years, and a churchwarden for several. He has led a Housegroup for a while and in January led a 10am service and preached at an 8.30 in order to help us discern a call to train as a Reader.
Yvonne Janvier moved into Holmes Chapel last year and joined our church in November after an active up-front leadership role in her previous church. She has joined the choir, become a sacristan, and been a regular at each of our three weekly congregations. Having attended a Diocese of Chester day in January on the options for licensed ministry, Yvonne was encouraged to consider Reader ministry. We have started to discern a call through her assistant leadership of the Christianity Explored group and intercessions plus preaching at the midweek Communion service.
If the PCC supports their applications, Tim and Yvonne will be interviewed in the late Spring by the Diocesan Team in charge of Readers’ ministry. If successful they will start two years’ training in September, which will include a placement at a contrasting CofE church not too far away. We have appreciated the valuable contribution of Reader ministry in the past and it would be great to have good Readers sharing in leading services, small groups, and preaching God’s word in the future.
In addition the diocese has referred to us a potential ordinand in the early stages of preparation for a National Selection Panel. Lee Hardy (together with his wife Liz) has been with us since December having moved nearby and decided that St Luke’s is God’s place for them. From January Lee has been on placement with us, testing his suitability for ordination in the CofE. I am pleased to be his placement supervisor as well as to welcome them as two of the several new members we have been glad to receive in the last few weeks.
It is the season for building a team of those with the gifts and character to share the ministry of God’s word.
Jesus had a unique ministry, but he also trained others to share the work of spreading the Word and taking authority in spiritual/pastoral matters. He put a lot of time and effort into training the 12 apostles. They became effective teachers and evangelists and church planters. The twelve apostles appointed seven deacons in Acts 6, in order that the ministry of the Word would multiply again. This is a healthy Biblical pattern.
Multiplication of good ministries helps the church to grow. This is particularly true of good ministries of the Word. So may the Lord give us good growth in fruitful ministries.
It is not just me who could benefit from team mates in the Lord’s work. There will be several other ministries in St Luke’s which would benefit from newcomers added to make a great team.
Please help us forward and pray for our progress.
Yours in Christ