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Prayers for deliverance during the pandemic    

13 May 2022

Leslie Francis and Andrew Village explore how belief in divine control affects personal well-being

ONE of the lesser-used prayers from the Prayer Book refers to “The time of any Plague of Sickness”:

O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Many prayers must have been offered up during the past two years, but were any likely to have placed the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic on human sin, or placed such a responsibility on God for deliverance? Although it seems to have been little discussed, the pandemic has raised theological questions concerning the nature of God and God’s agency in such situations. What do we believe about these things now?

The Covid-19 & Church-21 Survey explored these matters in a section introduced in the following way: “Some people wonder about the role of God in the pandemic. What do you think?” This section then presented a set of nine statements designed to explore a range of possible beliefs, and people were asked how far they agreed or disagreed with them.

Below, we present the level of endorsement (agree or strongly agree) of these statements by the 1841 clergy and lay participants in the survey who identified as Anglicans living in England:

  • The pandemic is punishment from God: 2 per cent.
  • God sent the pandemic to test our faith: 4 per cent.
  • Science will save us from the pandemic without God’s help: 12 per cent.
  • The pandemic is a result of human sin: 18 per cent.
  • God could stop the pandemic at any point whatever we do: 36 per cent.
  • The pandemic is a solely “natural” event without any relation to God: 44 per cent.
  • God will save us from the pandemic through science: 54 per cent.
  • God’s power to save us from the pandemic depends on human co-operation: 67 per cent.
  • God has always been in control during the pandemic: 69 per cent.

Four of these items were used to create the God in Control of the Pandemic Scale (GiCoPS): two positive items (“God has always been in control during the pandemic; God could stop the pandemic at any point whatever we do”) and two reverse-coded items (“The pandemic is a solely ‘natural’ event without any relation to God, Science will save us from the pandemic without God’s help”).

Those who scored high on this scale had a strong positive view of God’s agency during the pandemic; those who scored low tended to see humans as having the key responsibility. We wondered who in our sample would score high or low on this scale.

FIRST, we examined the personal, psychological, and ecclesial factors associated with having greater confidence in God’s agency during the pandemic. Greater belief in God’s agency was expressed by men, by younger participants, by clergy, by conservative believers, and by Charismatics. Psychological factors were also significant: greater belief in God’s agency was expressed by extroverts and by those who were emotionally calm.

Second, we explored how belief in God’s agency during the pandemic impacted personal well-being. The Covid-19 & Church-21 Survey measured changes in well-being during the pandemic by The Index of Balanced Affect Change (TIBACh). Participants were asked: “How would you rate how you are now compared with before the pandemic started?” They were then invited to rate on a five-point scale changes in positive affect (such as happiness) and changes in negative affect (such as anxiety).

After controlling for personal factors (age and sex), psychological factors (psychological type and emotional volatility), contextual factors (education level and ordination status), and ecclesial factors (conservative doctrine and Charismatic influence), we found that belief in divine control was associated with increases in positive affect, but unrelated to change in negative affect.

This finding is consistent with the wider literature on the connection between theological certainty and personal well-being. While theological certainty does not offer protection from negative affect (exhaustion, anxiety, stress, fatigue), theological certainty can enhance positive affect (thankfulness, happiness, hopefulness, trust), in the spirit of “I believe, therefore I can.”

THE balanced affect model of personal well-being is of interest for two reasons. First, the model recognises that positive affect and negative affect operate as partly separate systems. Hence, belief in divine control has an impact on one but not the other.

Second, the model recognises that positive affect offsets the deleterious effects of negative affect. Hence, belief in divine control functions as a predictive factor against some of the negative psychological consequences of the pandemic. Cranmer may have understood well the positive benefits of praying for deliverance from sickness and plague.

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, at York St John University.

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