The global pandemic of COVID-19 is many things, including a public health challenge and a test of community, but most importantly for Christians, an occasion of prayer. Our prayer book tradition offers resources for this moment of trial, in its prayers and liturgies, some of them not well known or obvious.
Prayer books are documents of their own time, but it’s curious how they sometimes betray their own blind spots. The 1979 BCP was timely in its incorporation of prayers for creation, given the increased awareness of the looming environmental crisis on “this fragile earth, our island home” (370), but not so helpful in terms of responding to and praying through this crisis. It’s as if the possibility of a societal-wide illness had been forgotten. We look in vain for a prayer that directly addresses a time “of any common plague or sickness” (1662 BCP).
Not every prayer in the almost 600-year-old prayer book tradition of petitioning in time of illness, especially one experienced throughout a society, will ring true to modern sensibilities. Yet older editions of the BCP, especially those that reflect the experience of the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the lingering memory of other crises in the more distant past, may offer resources. These two, in particular, may be helpful:
O most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee unto thee for succor. Deliver us, we beseech thee, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leadeth to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (1928 BCP, 45).
O Almighty and merciful God, with whom are the issues of life and death: Grant us, we beseech thee, help and deliverance in this time of grievous sickness and mortality, and sanctify to us this affliction, that in our sore distress we may turn our hearts unto thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (1929 Scottish BCP, 42).
We are not dependent, however, solely on older editions. The 1979 BCP does contain many prayers that speak to this moment in our common life, many of them translations and adaptations of collects from the older Latin sacramentaries. Some of these we seldom hear:
Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, from all things that may hurt us, that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 229).
Grant, O Lord, that the course of this world may be peaceably governed by your providence; and that your Church may joyfully serve you in confidence and serenity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 229).
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of your servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by your gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 832).
After liturgical revision in the 1970s, a number of ancient collects from earlier editions of the Prayer Book migrated to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, including this one:
O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom you have given a fervent desire to pray, may, by your mighty aid, be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (LFF, 3rd ed., 37).
Perhaps this treasure from the church’s liturgical “attic” will have wider use in the future.
This set of versicles and responses from Morning Prayer, anciently appended to the Te Deum, have an element of solemn supplication, for corporate or individual use:
V. Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance;
R. Govern and uphold them, now and always.
V. Day by day we bless you;
R. We praise your Name for ever.
V. Lord, keep us from all sin today;
R. Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy.
V. Lord, show us your love and mercy;
R. For we put our trust in you.
V. In you, Lord, is our hope;
R. And we shall never hope in vain (BCP, 98).
From our 1982 Hymnal, this stanza from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is appropriate, especially for individual use:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger (Hymnal, 370).
The antiphon attached to the Nunc Dimittis at Compline falls into this same category:
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may rest with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace (BCP, 135).
The collect for the Third Sunday in Lent we hear every year, however, and is certainly timely now:
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all
adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 218).
We have resources for both public and private prayer in the midst of this crisis. Our Lord taught us to pray, in the time of trial, for deliverance from evil. In some ways, we have been here before: not in exactly the same place, in view of the unique circumstances and context of this virus, but certainly in the need to turn to the throne of grace.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.