It is now Eastertide and the quarantine orders have not been lifted nor has the spread and toll of COVID-19 been fully exacted: we are still living in the time of the virus.
Some among us may have hoped that, by Doubting Thomas Sunday at least, we might have some clearer picture of “when we can return to normal,” but we do not. If anything, the epidemic has given us proof of only one thing: that clear predictions, legible forecasts, and measures of certainty are things at which we currently do not excel.
For church leaders, this means we must continue to minister in the lingering strangeness of these days.
Amidst this strangeness, much has been written on how pastors can respond to the problems posed to common worship and to the ministry of the Church by COVID-19. But the majority of these have aimed at helping us on a functional or productional level (getting services online, setting up Zoom, etc.). Less has been written equipping pastors for the difficult work of providing theological leadership to the churches or ministries in their care during this time of fear and uncertainty.
In what follows I offer three ways pastors can lead theologically during this time of quarantine and loss, ways which have sustained the people of God through many other waves of pestilence and trial.
1. Lead in Common Prayer
In 1666 London was ravaged by the Great Fire which raged for four and a half days. And while the fatalities were remarkably low, the Fire left most of the city destroyed. This unfolded only a year after the horrors of the 1665 plague, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to hit England.
The response of the nation and of the church in that moment was to create a special service of prayer. Within a month the service was published and its observation mandated throughout the realm. As Jack Gilpin has demonstrated in his historical survey of the liturgical response to the Fire, this service shaped the national conscience and identity more than any other theological work; for even the nonconformist ministers (protestant clergymen who resisted conformity to the Church of England) understood the significance of a people united in prayer.
This was, again the response of the church when confronted with the Cattle Plague years later, in 1865, and again in 2001 when Britain was affected by foot-and-mouth disease: special services, corporate common prayer, fasting and penitence.
This brings me to my first point: while many ministers took to pulpit and pamphlet to understand these trials of the Plague and the Fire theologically (often presenting hotly contested interpretations: i.e., “This is God’s wrath…,” and, alternatively, “This is the work of Satan…”), little of this “theology-from-above” shepherded the people of the realm the way that being unified in prayer did.
Lex orandi lex credendi has become, doubtless, something of a commonplace among contemporary Anglican circles. We must continue to heed it. My exhortation is that the best theology pastors can do during this time is to lead in common prayer. The distribution of BCPs, the creation of special services for use during times of sickness for regular use on network and diocesan levels, and the long hours spent discipling individuals and families in the use of them, is theological work of the highest order.
Continued effort in the area of equipping households and individuals in daily common prayer will be worth the time it takes to equip them and walk with them toward liturgical competency. Let us pastor in such a way that the language of the daily liturgies becomes for our people something certain in a time where little is certain and all other words and circumstances are subject to rapid change.
Liturgical discipleship carries the theological freight of the parish. As the weight of pastoral ministry grows during this time, we must allow the liturgy of Common Prayer to do the heavy theological lifting.
2. Lead in the Loss and in Praying the Psalter
Ours is a time where we are made very much aware of loss. Accessory to the particular sense of loss occasioned by COVID-19 is the insufficiency of contemporary global culture to deal with loss in general. We minister among a people for whom “lament” is an altogether alien concept, and right now people are made aware of the fact that there is much to lament over.
As with Common Prayer, the Psalter places the worshiper in a conversation with God. In the psalms God is no longer absent, He is there. He arrives in both the apostrophic voice of the psalmist and in being Himself the true Singer of the psalms.
The Psalter contains the songs of God for the people of God. They are the songs that Christ sings in us. In the Psalter Head and Body are joined in mutual harmony. St. Augustine of Hippo’s Enarrationes in Psalmos elucidate this truth, particularly in 86.1 where he describes the way Christ “prays for us, as our Priest; He prays in us, as our Head; He is prayed to by us, as our God. Let us therefore recognize in Him our words, and His words in us.”
Rowan Williams further explains, “…the Psalms are the words of Jesus, the Word who speaks in all scripture … He speaks for us, makes his own the protesting or troubled cry of the human being, so that his own proper and perfect prayer to the Father may become ours” (On Augustine, 27).
As we minister to those who are suffering loss, and who are in many places cut off from embodied fellowship with the church and normal reception of the sacraments, our leading them in praying through the Psalter outfits them with the theological vocabulary to process and cope with loss.
As Williams notes, when we live our lives in conversation with the incarnate God, our losses and struggles “become intelligible in a new way as they are set in the context of God’s ‘loss’, God’s absence from God in the event of the Incarnation” (On Augustine, 13).
While not as explicit as writing a blog for the church website or posting a short update video on Facebook, walking people through praying the Psalter does something perhaps far deeper: It establishes a tacit theology of lament. For here, Christ assumes our brokenness and we adopt his fullness; the Word meets us in the words of our confusion, and we respond to Him in the language of psalmic clarity.
But there is another thing the psalms do, they structure our loss, rendering worship from our chaos. As Walter Brueggemann explains, praying the psalms brings “the stylized, disciplined speech of the Psalms together with the raw, ragged, mostly formless experiences in our lives” (Praying the Psalms, 30).
This is made possible in part by the poetic form of lament offered in the psalms: metrical verse. For, as Dana Gioia informs us, “Cognitive science now suggests that humans are actually hard-wired to respond to the sort of patterned speech that verse represents … poetry reflects the unique cognitive capacity of the human mind and body.”
Psalmic verse then presents us with a language of prayer that is ordered, metrical, and structured towards ultimate resolution before the throne of God. The verse form of the Psalter works in us a grammar for unity and shalom.
If, as St. Evagrius claims in his Chapters on Prayer, to be a theologian is to be one who truly prays, then the psalms are not merely the stuff of theological content, they are the practice of theology par excellence.
3. Lead in Being Present and Personal
During the early 18th century, the mission of the Anglican church in the low country of South Carolina was a brutal one. Epidemic, illness, and death were, in the words of William Bull, a “constant attendance at God’s alter [sic].” Malaria and Yellow Fever (in addition to other sicknesses) took the lives of both clergy and laity. The ministry of the missionary priests in South Carolina was consumed largely by visitations to the sick and funerals. At certain points low country parishes saw anywhere from 3–9 burials a day.
The response of the mission during this time was to provide pastoral care by being as present in the community as possible. Gideon Johnston, for example, the commissary at the time, writes, “I look upon Visitation of the Sick to be a duty of the last Consequence to the Souls of Men, and it is upon the bed of Sickness if ever that a Minister has the greatest opportunity of doing good.”
The low country pastors did all they could to meet the overwhelming death with their own presence. As in our own time, their ability to be present was at times limited by finances, quarantines, and staffing issues. But those vicissitudes did not change the fundamental conviction, held by both laity and clergy, that the office of pastor was itself a kind of embodied theology. This is the way pastors function in community as symbols.
As Gordon Lathrop notes in his book on pastoral ministry, God does something in the presence of the pastor, especially in times of trial because “on such an occasion, just the presence of the pastor may seem enough: the pastor then is the symbol—for mystery, for wider connection, for a barely remembered past, perhaps for good, most likely for God” (The Pastor, 4).
This was also the case for Londoners during the 1665 Plague. While many clergy fled the city with the landed gentry, nobility, and those with means to flee, the non-conformists (who had hitherto been removed from their churches) stayed and ministered among the dying. And, when Parliament passed the Five Mile Act barring them from their churches, many simply moved their ministry into the streets.
In this way the pastors proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ even if only by wearing their pastoral garb and speaking up into a second story window (since quarantined plague houses were typically placed under guard).
As Lathrop explains, it sometimes is the case that in moments when people are starved of personal exchange and symbolic meaning, the pastor can then “discover that she or he is the only keeper of communal symbols in sight” (The Pastor, 4). Keeping and proclaiming the symbols for our community is also necessary theological work.
I am not here advocating for anything other than being as present as we are able during this time. This will vary between dioceses and regional communities. At the very least, however, this means elevating the personal above the productional, at least for a time. It entails finding clever ways to offer moments to those in our care in which they can be individually responded to and heard. A video is great (I’ve made a few over the past couple of weeks) but it is unidirectional. I am being seen, but are my parishioners?
Individual phone calls, personal emails, house visits, and house blessings (even if only from the sidewalk, wearing a mask) are the kinds of things that, during this time of distance and separation, enable people to feel the warmth of our attention and care. We do not necessarily have to choose between safe social distancing measures and providing personal care and shepherding. We may, however, need to choose between hours spent editing video and hours making individual phone calls for personal prayer, private confession, and one-on-one discipleship.
You see, what this emphasis on the personal does is to speak a theology of the Cross: my life for yours. It costs time, for people always cost time, but it is time well spent. And time spent for the people of God is the business of theological leadership.
Fr. Mark Brians is the rector at All Saints, an Anglican church plant in downtown Honolulu. He is married to Rachel and they live with their three children in Liliha, just up the street from Young’s Noodle Factory, which they frequent weekly.