“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4)
In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, many Christians feel exiled from their own churches, as indeed they are physically. This is hardly a brutal banishment as in past times of persecution, earthquake, and war. The effects of the present Time of the Virus are destructive enough in other ways, to be sure. But church buildings stand, priests, ministers, and bishops are in place and they still send their messages abroad. Yet it is all as if from afar, with most Christians watching, from across their quieted streets or on the screens, the distanced silhouettes of their churches, now barred, wondering what to do. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
On the night of September 2, 1666, a fire engulfed and burned much of London to the ground. The next day, John Evelyn did what he always did: he joined his family in prayer together in their home. Only then, in wonderment and sorrow, did they go and watch from a distance as the city went up in a blaze, amazed and stricken as they saw barges of desperate people float down the Thames with what little they could salvage piled on their swaying vessels. In his now famous Diary, Evelyn weeps over what are the “ruins” of a once great city:
The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like a hideous storm […]It forcibly called to my mind that passage—”non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatem” [“for here we have no continuing city…” Heb 13:14]; the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more!
There is much to ponder in events like these. Here, we would point only to the opening note of the day: Evelyn’s watching took place in the frame of his family’s gathering in prayer. Such family prayer was a common setting in those days. We find it in Pepys’ recounting of the great London Plague of the year before, and in Daniel Defoe’s own far more vital narrative of the same epidemic: in the midst of all these terrors, just as in the daily round of normal life, families prayed, day by day. They called it “public prayer”, in the sense that they used the prayer book or some other ordered form: parents, children, servants gathered in one room, often in the evening, but sometimes in the morning too, to read the office or some portion of it, recite the Psalms, hear the Scriptures, offer intercession, lift up before God the realm.
“Domestic prayer”, we call it today, in a term wrongly tinged with our own contemporary sense of the home as someplace “private” and silent to the world. In the 17th century, however, as in many eras other than our own, the home was, as the English liked to say, a “little commonwealth,” and the family (in Chrysostom’s phrase) a “little church,” strong enough in spirit to carry nations on its shoulders, if not in this world, then in and into the next.
The onslaught of COVID-19 has shaken the peoples of the earth and their institutions. Just how strongly, we shall see; but the tremors are real enough. Everyone with an ounce of common sense is asking an age-old question. “What then shall we do?” The initial answer of the churches has been to offer their members, through various forms of digital communication, comfort, practical advice, and the sharing of information and experience. These electronic forms of communication include phone-trees, live-streamed forms of worship (without the presence of congregations), podcasts and blogs of spiritual messaging, drive-through blessings and, in some cases, even drive-by pickup of consecrated hosts.
These responses are of differing value and appropriateness; and all are, without doubt, well-meant. Well-meant or not, however, the question they seek to answer is not the first to be asked. In the midst of plague the first question to which God directs our attention is not “what shall we do” but what is God doing to and for us in the midst of this deadly pandemic?
We do not mean to suggest that God has sent COVID-19 to punish us (though the question is hardly out of bounds). We suggest only that God, in speaking to us in the midst of life’s fragility, reminds us that none of our efforts to avoid the abyss — the dust of nothingness — from which we come and to which we return will in the end succeed. In the end, nations rise and fall and death will claim us all. “Here, we have no continuing city.” What, then? “We seek one to come.” And in this foreign land, in our seeking and our watching, we sing the songs that God has taught us.
What we “do” emerges only from recognizing where God has placed us. In traditional language, in the midst of plagues God questions our lives and calls us to repent. That is, he calls us to turn away from foundations that can be shaken to one that cannot be moved. To rephrase this yet again, we can say that in the midst of plagues God calls us to worship him and renounce the worship of our false Gods — the ones that slumber and sleep and cannot help in time of need. In short, worship is at the center of this time, not as a means of comfort (though surely it is that), nor as an instrument of passage to a better time and economy (though it helps there too). We are here to sing the Lord’s song, and nothing else.
That said, we take it as given that God’s call to worship him in Spirit and Truth has been made particularly difficult by the virus that now ravages the nations of the world. This virus has rendered public worship an international threat to public health. We cannot gather to share bread and wine and in so doing “show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.” Arguments abound among us on this score. What is more, the virus that has visited us has brought to the full light of day the fact that the society that forms both our children and us no longer particularly cares about the silencing of our congregational voices. A “foreign land” it surely is. But the Lord’s song is already written in our books, awaiting our enunciation.
The Book of Common Prayer, our primary means of Christian formation as Anglicans, lies ready as a gift. Not all of its pages contain forms for corporate worship, but all of it is “public” in the sense that Evelyn understood. Many of its pages, after all, provide forms of devotion well-suited for use in the home. The Book of Common Prayer is as much about what we can call Domestic Liturgy as it is about congregational worship. That is, it suggests a form of life shaped in the domestic space by daily reading of Scripture; prayers at morning, noon, and night; observance of the seasons of the Christian year; self-examination and prayer for others and ourselves.
Indeed, we contend that the Book of Common Prayer assumes that the formative power of public worship is inextricably linked to the sanctification of life as lived daily within domestic space. This truth has been steadily eroded in our era of digitalized passivity.
Protestant worship long thrived on household worship, and people like Evelyn were but ordinary practitioners of its virtue. In emphasizing household prayer, English Protestants in particular built on the Catholic domestic worship that was already in place in the 16th century. And by the 17th century especially, domestic prayer life was, arguably, central to almost all streams of especially British Christian life, and later early American Christian devotion, as the diaries of early British settlers on the Atlantic coast attest.
Protestants and Catholics, and often antagonistic Protestants among themselves, borrowed from each other’s books and manuals, revising, collating, especially using forms of prayer that built upon a scriptural and personal devotion that was now shared among all members of the home. That was the point.
As recent work by historians like Fiona Counsell has shown, English theological luminaries like William Perkins, William Gouge, John Cosin, Vincent Taylor and John Tillotson were all involved in the dissemination of these practices, convinced as they were that the family was “the seminarie of all other societies” (Perkins). By the late 17th century, female devotional writers had become leaders in encouraging household worship, and their quiet but often extensive influence fueled a long-standing movement in Christian literacy and prayer among all ages and where it most mattered, in the home.
These domestic liturgies, at least among members of the Church of England, were not forms of life independent to the BCP’s corporate worship. They flowed from them and in turn supported the “common” prayer of the gathered people. They were, in fact, an ongoing, visible, and sustaining aspect of what made common prayer “common.” Already at the time of Thomas Cranmer’s early reforming work, “primers” were being published that contained forms of the offices in English for families to use.
But quickly the BCP as a whole inserted itself into the domestic sphere, along with supporting volumes of family prayer and ordered services. The oral culture that still permeated popular Christianity well into the 19th century both demanded and permitted “common prayer” to be sowed and then flourish within the home.
In all this, if in a weakened manner, the BCP framed a form of Christian life that mirrored aspects of devotion that provided Judaism its lifeblood, that is the coordination together of domestic and corporate worship. After the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., as is well known, the “sacrifice” of the Jewish people was formally shifted and embodied in the form of prayer and service centered in family and synagogue. This was not merely an adjustment to circumstance; it was viewed by sage and scribe alike as a faithful response to God’s judgment and gracious mercy granted to Israel in her present vocation, a recognition of the “times,” a spiritual sensitivity from which we might well learn today.
When the Psalmist asked “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” Diaspora Jews answered with the Domestic Liturgy, which maintained its vigor and integrity even when social threat closed off their access to the synagogue. Much as we are asked to do on the Lord’s Day, they kept — and keep! — the Sabbath weekly in the home, joining children and adults together in the most profound celebration of God’s gift of himself. As we are asked to do, they daily said the prayers and kept the feasts that mark God’s faithfulness and kindness. As we are asked to do, they followed a way of life faithful to the covenant. They did these things each day and week within the walls of their homes and in all the lands of their dispersal.
By means of Domestic Liturgy they not only survived and kept hope alive, they also witnessed to the truth of God’s unshakeable fidelity. It is instructive to hear the Jewish-Christian David Neuhaus point us to this reality today, in the face of our often frantic and sometimes angry attempts to assert our Christian worship in the Time of the Virus, as if we were without the gifts needed for faithfulness in the face of travail.
It is a matter of encouragement that some congregations seem to have recognized these gifts. There are churches who are using our present moment to teach their people anew the practice of household prayer and the use of the BCP to order it. It is, to be sure, a mark of our churches’ formational neglect that so many Christians require elementary teaching in this respect. But perhaps the demand for such renewal is part of the blessing of this time.
Yet if it is a gift, it not an idle one. The Time of the Virus is a particular kind of plague, and its effects have exposed tremendous weaknesses at the root of our common life and witness. Our Jewish brethren — not least because of the Christian Church’s astounding and unrelenting viciousness towards them — spent centuries drawing from the wells of domestic faith and worship, and thereby being transformed into a people of enduring hope within the world, marked by a spirit of philanthropia whose medical fruits, among many, have been on clear display in the present crisis. It is a story of both tragic and wondrous transfiguration. Our own churches, by contrast, seem only to be groping at the front end of such a process, whose corridors are likely to be long.
Still, we are in a foreign land, and to have our eyes opened to this reality is a blessing, not a curse. The category of “diaspora” has, of late, been mostly applied to ethnic and immigrant groups, or, in Christian terms, to political sensibilities of resistance to the status quo. The Time of the Virus is making it clear that the demise of Christendom is now complete, and that “diaspora” now applies to all of us. After all, “our commonwealth is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This meant, for St. Paul, “pressing ahead” toward the “prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), a vocation for the “mature” who had indeed learned to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. This is a time to learn to pray again, not for today only, but for the long journey ahead.
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including Sex, Money and Power and Christian Ethics and the Church. He has served the Episcopal Church as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.
Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology