Where’s the Cry of Anguish? (Prayers during Covid)

Not long after the current outbreak started, the Church of England nationally issued some prayers ‘for personal and group use at this challenging time’. They are available at the C of E website. They are good prayers and I hope that many people find them helpful. But something strikes me about them: they offer no articulation of personal negative or difficult feelings. In other words, they do not facilitate any personal lament.

I’ll explain what I mean by that, why it might matter, and what can helpfully supplement those prayers.

Commenting on the prayers in the order they appear in the printed booklet and webpage:

  • The first two refer to a ‘time of uncertainty and distress’ and ‘time of anxiety’, not quite identifying who it is that is uncertain, distressed or anxious. They intercede in general terms for ‘all who are brought low’ – allowing that we might be included in that group – but then for ‘strength to comfort the fearful’, as if ‘we’ are not included in that group.
  • The third prayer has a similarly detached, third person expression: ‘those who are …’
  • Subsequent prayers are specifically framed for ‘those who are ill’ (again in the third person, ‘them’, implying ‘we’ are not in that group), and ‘for hospital staff’.
  • When we come to the prayer ‘from one who is ill’, there is some individual expression which looks forward to some positive future – ‘help me to trust, help me to believe’ – without any articulation of the awfulness of the present.
  • And then we come to a prayer ‘for the Christian community’ which begins ‘We are not people of fear …’ and I’m just shouting at the booklet: ‘What if I am? What if I feel terrified right now? (I know plenty of people who are.) HOW DO I PRAY?’

Anyone who has read my previous writing on lament will know how important I think this is. Negative emotions – fear, anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness – all have a potential to separate us from a sense of communion with God. When faced with such feelings, we need prayers that will express them authentically. To fail to name their reality risks either an inauthentic faith that pretends they are not there, or a drifting away from God, if we believe that those feelings have no place in the life of faith.

I’ve come across two pieces of writing from elsewhere recently that emphasise this point.

In his reflections on the psalms of ‘vengeance’, Erich Zenger quotes Ottmar Fuchs making exactly this point about a prayer book:

Why and whence this reticence … to make lament a formal prayer and thus to designate it as an act of speaking and so to present it … as also a church-approved and spiritually appropriate relationship to God? … [The Prayers] turn all too quickly to trusting petitions, even to the point of surrender and willingness to endure everything! As a group, these prayers have a depressing and calming effect, and do not permit the process of questioning and lament in its demanding and aggressive form; instead, they actually suppress that confrontation and cover it over … Such an outcome is neither just to the situation of those who suffer, nor does it take seriously the biblical genres of prayer![1]

This echoes my thoughts exactly about the Covid prayers from the Church of England. By being so anodyne and impersonal, they are actually depressing, in that they disengage from the emotional reality that is likely to be prompted by such a crisis.

[As an aside, the question of ‘why this reticence’ is another whole topic for consideration. In the Church of England context, I do wonder whether it arises from a distortion of the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi : that the faith of the church is expressed in what it prays. This fine principle works well when it expresses the fact that our theology can be discerned in what we pray. But it becomes a distorting stricture if it leads to prayers not being considered appropriate if they do not clearly express a well-rounded form of conventional theology. It results in the anodyne creed-like prayers that I am concerned with here.]

Why does this matter? Simply because a faithful life necessitates a genuine and authentic relationship with God. Moreover, to censor a life of prayer is to diminish the person praying. Zenger has already put it better than I can myself: ‘Those who refuse suffering people the right to lament deny them their own language and thus a fundamental act of their humanity.’[2] This implies that the present crisis and all its concomitant maelstrom of emotions could be an opportunity to become more fully  human. But if we are led in prayer only in prayers for others, or that do not engage with the depth and reality of turmoil that we personally undergo, then we are losing part of our humanity.

A similar idea arose in a set of ‘ponderings’ that was distributed last week to clergy in my Diocese:

I wonder if one of the most important things clergy can do at this time – at any time – is not only to be open to and aware of that basic emptiness and lostness, but to encourage people not to avoid that primary human condition, the calling to and of God deep within their deepest self – the soul.  Rather than offering people ‘distractions’ isn’t one of our primary tasks to enable people to realise they’re called to enter the depths of their being? [3]

To enter the ‘depths of our being’ does indeed sound like profound spiritual wisdom in any moment. At the present time, it is not likely to be pretty, but that should not negate the principle. Indeed, it is precisely in the depths, and our articulation of them, that we might find more of ourselves and more of God.

So what can we do to help –  what supplement is needed for the Church of England’s prayer booklet? In the first instance, we need look no further than the psalms of lament. They provide us with tried and tested expressions that find resonance in the most awful of circumstances. And as biblical prayers, they have a sense of ‘safety’ and authorisation about them – they are God-ordained prayers.

Two obvious starting points: mentioning ‘the depths’ evokes Psalm 130, with its extraordinarily powerful image of all that threatens and overwhelms. And the grinding weariness of lockdown calls for the ‘How long?’ of Psalm 13, which I have written about previously. Many other examples, and a much fuller rationale and guide to praying the psalms of lament, are in my publications.

[1] Ottmar Fuchs, cited in Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (trans. Linda M. Maloney; Louisville: Westminster John Know, 1996), p.89.

[2] Ibid, p.92.

[3] John-Francis Friendship, ‘Pandemic Ponderings: Pandemic and the Paschal Journey’, distributed with the Bp of Southwark’s Ascension Day 2020 Pastoral Letter to Clergy. Also available at https://youtu.be/Mk6GeJHV64g (at 10:55).


One Reply to “Where’s the Cry of Anguish? (Prayers during Covid)”

  1. Thanks Simon. A helpful reminder, particularly as our church is in the middle of a series on Psalms & I’m preaching on Ps 25. Also a good heads-up for the prayer & intercessions teams. D x

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