Common Prayer after the end of history

As I write this post, the top 7 stories on the BBC News website are about coronavirus.  The lead story quotes Public Health England warning that the UK must prepare for widespread transmission of the of the virus.

To state what should be obvious, the Church in its public worship should be praying about this situation.  Perhaps, then, one should reach for the Church of England's Common Worship Daily Prayer to find an appropriate prayer in the face of the threat posed by such a virus.  But no, no such prayer is to be found in Common Worship.  For those of us in the Church of Ireland, we could reach for our BCP 2004 and turn to the section entitled 'Some Prayers and Thanksgivings'.  Again no such prayer will be found.

The contrast with 1662 (and, in Ireland, 1926) is stark.  Amongst the prayers contained in 1662 for use "upon several occasions" at Morning and Evening Prayer we find the following:

For Rain.  For fair Weather.  In the time of Dearth and Famine.  In the time of War and Tumults.  In the time of any common Plague or Sickness.  

Ireland 1926 offers similar provision to each of these.  Now some of the 1926 provision for other topics are included in BCP 2004.  Omitted, however, are the prayers for rain, for fair weather, in time of dearth or famine, in time of war and tumults ... and in time of common plague or sickness.  It is an unfortunately common characteristic in contemporary Anglican prayer books.  PECUSA BCP 1928 provision of prayers for rain, for fair weather, in time of dearth and famine, and in time of calamity has no equivalent in BCP 1979.  That said, both TEC 1979 and Ireland 2004 at least make the effort to offer some sort of prayers and thanksgivings appropriate for public worship in a range of circumstances, which sets them apart from the derisory offering of 'Other Prayers' to be found in Common Worship Daily Prayer.

The absence of authorised prayers for rain, for fair weather, or in time of common plague or sickness too easily suggests that such matters are somehow irrelevant to the Christian Faith and the Church's witness.  In that sense, they reflect the sickly theologies of the 60s.  The absence of such prayers is the outworking of Honest to God, The Secular City, and The Myth of God Incarnate.  Such theologies offered a desiccated understanding of God, with (at best) a crippling agnosticism regarding God's sovereignty, providence, and purposes.  After all, if, as John Robinson famously declared, "Men can no longer credit the existence ... of a God as a supernatural Person, as religion has always posited", such prayers as those offered by the Prayer Book tradition regarding weather or disease became an embarrassment.

In addition to this theological background, the latest round of Anglican liturgical revision in the 1990s took place in a context shaped the apparent triumph of liberalism.  The Berlin Wall had fallen and history, we were told, had ended.  Democratic capitalism had prevailed, the sunny uplands of peace and prosperity lay before us.  Tony Blair's New Labour captured the spirit of the age with the use of D:Ream's 'Things Can Only Get Better'.  We were in the NICE era, non-inflationary continuous expansion.

The liturgies of the era - and I am particularly thinking of Common Worship and Ireland 2004 - embody the 'end of history' spirit and its liberal optimism.  Things, after all, can only get better.  Prayers for fair weather, for use in time of tumults, in time of common sickness or plague, they referred to a past era not to the peaceful, prosperous world of democratic capitalism and liberal hegemony.

The end of history ended rather quickly.  9/11, Middle East conflicts, economic crash, climate chaos, frequent adverse weather conditions, political turmoil, and a series of outbreaks of infectious diseases.  Not to mention the fact that democratic capitalism and liberal hegemony had already made their peace with profound injustices and inequalities.  Much contemporary Anglican liturgy, however, is stuck in a now past era of comfortable liberal assumptions, assumptions revealed to be vain and self-deluding.  At the same time, the Prayers and Thanksgivings offered by the Prayer Book tradition resonate afresh now that the 'end of history' delusion has passed.

This includes the sense of divine judgement found in the 1662 prayer 'In the time of any common Plague or Sickness' and its equivalent in Ireland 1926.  Coronavirus is exposing the absence of limits in a globalised economy's pursuit of profit, the failure to maintain the "landmarks" (Deuteronomy 19:14) which should order and regulate our common life for our good. It is exposing how inequalities and the failure to secure decent healthcare in societies undermine the common good.  It is exposing the injustices which too often surround the weakness and frailty of old age.  This, then, can be understood as an experience of wrath and judgement.  In the words of the relevant prayer in Ireland 1926: "Sanctify to us, we beseech thee, this thy fatherly correction".

We aneed such prayers in authorised liturgies in order to prevent extemporary and local attempts at such prayer in public worship which often fall short because of an understandable reticence regarding the language of judgement when it proceeds from an individual's own thoughts; or, alternatively, lack due caution and reserve; or which lack the theological confidence to meaningfully address these matters in prayer.   We need such prayers because these matters are a part of the condition of human societies, because we are dependent on rain and fair weather, because we do experience conflict and tumults, and because common illness can afflict us.

It is part of Common Prayer to pray for common conditions and circumstances.  The profound weakness of liturgies from the 'end of history' era is that they reflect both the naive optimism and narrow concerns of a delusional decade.  The Prayer Book tradition thankfully sets before us a deeper wisdom, at once earthy and heavenly, in the face of the challenges, tumults, and fears which routinely afflict our common life.


  1. I used some of those prayers this morning using my 1662 BCP with MP.
    It is large print (reading issues) and that seems to make them more to the point.

    1. Many thanks for the comment. This illustrates the importance of having such prayers in a one-volume book.


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