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The Ven John Barton looks back on the courage of Christians during the Great Plague of London in 1665

The Reverend Richard Peirson was one of the exceptions.  Most of the other clergy in the City of London had fled the Great Plague in 1665, but Peirson stayed behind to look after the parishioners of St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, where he was Rector. The parish was densely populated and the pandemic was catastrophic. The church’s register records 636 burials that year in the month of September alone, with 43 interred in one day.

Houses of infected people were marked with a red cross on the door, with occupants kept inside for 40 days. Handcarts were pulled along the city streets to cart away the bodies; the drivers’ cries of “Bring out your dead”, became etched in the memories of subsequent generations. Relatives were banned from attending funerals.

The official count numbered 68,596 deaths in London alone, but other estimates suggested two or three times that number. Bubonic plague – for that is what it was – was incurable. Poor people were fatalistic about it but complained that even their ‘spiritual physicians’ had abandoned them. Clergy of the Church of England were often supplanted by non-conformist preachers.

It wasn’t just the St Bride’s Rector who put his life in jeopardy by staying at his post. While most wealthy people, along with King Charles II and his court, escaped the plague-ridden city, Churchwarden Henry Clarke also chose to remain at the church. When he succumbed to the illness, his brother William took over. William survived for a fortnight.  

Plague cases continued to occur sporadically at a modest rate until mid-1666. That year the Great Fire of London destroyed St Bride’s Church and much of the City of London. It was rebuilt to a design by Christopher Wren, but almost obliterated once more in 1940 during World War II before being restored yet again.

Today’s Rector, Canon Alison Joyce, says that compared with her predecessor Richard Peirson, she has it easy. Like everyone else, she is confined by the lockdown rules to her Rectory next to the church. But her pastoral work continues, and she collates sermons and archive music to create a Sunday webcast service. Alison writes, “these days it is a ministry of telephone calls, emails and Facetime. I offer such practical help and support to the vulnerable as I can . . . I keep a candle burning before our main altar and continue a ministry of prayer.”

Alison says she is surprised when people regard the faith as a kind of celestial insurance policy against bad things happening to them. The first followers of Jesus knew that in dedicating their lives to following the crucified and risen Christ, their discipleship would take them into the very heart of darkness, not away from it. 

She adds, “Hope is no hope at all unless it can engage with utter despair and meaninglessness.”

Source : Parish Pump