NOW, it may seem tasteless. But, of course, the authors of the Revised Common Lectionary cannot have known that, 30 years on, they would be dragging those who say Morning Prayer through the plagues of Egypt at a time of international pestilence. Each morning, in the company of Moses and Aaron (the lectionary skips over the passage that identifies them as vulnerable adults, aged 80 and 83 respectively), another plague is dangled before the faithful, inviting them to draw inaccurate parallels with the present day.
Former generations of Christians had no such qualms, as an academic survey of this nation’s days of prayer shows (opposite page). For most of its history, the Government and the Church have interpreted threats from warfare, natural disaster, and infection as God’s judgement on a particular or general wickedness. Prayers and acts of penitence from all were ordered, and the turning aside of danger, a military success, or simply the dying out of an epidemic were celebrated as signs of the return of God’s favour. It would be good to report that a more enlightened theology changed things; but it appears that advances in science, such as the knowledge of how infection is spread, and a growing pluralism of belief, led the way, leaving the Church to catch up later with a more sophisticated view of how God works through human hands — and not merely the hands of the faithful, either.
Something has, inevitably, been lost in this process, and not merely the innocent turning to God in times of trouble. The habit of self-examination when prompted by adversity turns up useful insights, not necessarily connected with the cause of the threat: if one is going to be struck down by an infection, or incinerated in a nuclear blast, it is as well to be right with God. And it is a loss, too, that the only occasions on which the nation is invited to examine its faults are General Elections, when the critics are looking not for penitence but preferment.
But so much more has been gained. At root, there is a greater understanding of the world as infused by the Spirit of God, and not under the stern eye of a distant Father. This enables people to recognise the self-evident goodness in human beings of whatever creed, and dissolves the feeling of superiority which individuals attach to the version of faith they happen to adhere to. It universalises the task of acting better, less selfishly, and more closely to the divine love that the writers of scripture strove to understand and articulate. And it encourages people, when adversity strikes, as now, to see afresh how tightly sacrificial love is woven into our society in the day-to-day dedication of health and care workers, neighbours, shopworkers, family and church members. . . — all, in fact, who put the needs of others before their own.