A Prayer We All Are Praying Now

By Mark Michael

“Grant we beseech thee, merciful Lord, help and deliverance unto us, who are visited with grievous sickness and mortality. Sanctify to us this our sore distress, and prosper with thy continual blessing those who labor to devise for mankind protection against disease and pain; through him who both healed and hallowed pain, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

The Rev. Marcus Walker, the rector of St. Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church, says it’s ironic that English Anglicans needed to look back to the Proposed Prayer Book of 1928 to find a prayer fitting for the crisis unfolding in his parish, which contains one of the city’s largest coronavirus wards.

“The prayer is asking for God’s help and for those who are seeking to remedy the problem,” he said of the text from the service book, which was widely used in the Church of England for fifty years, though never officially authorized. (It is not to be confused with the authorized 1928 prayer book of the Episcopal Church.) “It’s a prayer we all are praying now.”

“There are no prayers for plague or common sickness in the 1980 Alternative Services Book or Common Worship, because we thought we’d conquered it,” Walker said. “We had to go back almost a century to find a prayer written for these circumstances, because of our hubris we presumed we had beaten nature.”

On March 22, the last Sunday when public worship was permitted in the church, a quartet from the choir of Great St. Bart’s performed “Collect in the Time of Plague and Common Sickness,” a setting of the collect text composed just days before. The church is now using recordings of the anthem as part of a charity appeal for supporting members of their choir during the economic distress that has followed the coronavirus shutdown across Britain.

The composer, William Whitehead, who serves as assistant organist of the chapel at nearby Lincoln’s Inn, said that the idea behind the anthem came from Canon Dan Inman, chancellor at Chichester Cathedral, and a mutual friend of his and Walker’s. Whitehead originally composed the piece, which goes in to seven parts in places, for the cathedral’s choir of men and boys. He says he can work fast, and completed the piece in just four days. But he wasn’t fast enough. “By the time I had written it, the choir had dispersed. The Puritan moment had come,” he joked, referring to that church’s rejection of music.

Inman connected Whitehead to Walker, whose church was grateful to host the piece’s premier. Whitehead quickly reworked the anthem for a mixed choir of four voices, all that social distancing would permit. The composer himself wasn’t allowed to be present for the service. “I would have been one body too many in the church,” he said. He was pleased with the setting, though, as the church is so closely associated with Bart’s Hospital, where an older half-sister of his had worked for many years.

The anthem is relatively simple, Whitehead said. “I hope people find it to be beautiful and faithful to the text,” he added, describing the prayer as “rising an interesting and beautiful theological point” in its description of Jesus as “he who healed and hallowed pain.” He said that he designed the anthem on a hexachord, with each line of the text starting one degree higher than the one before. “It helps to carry the thrust of the text, starting from beseeching and then making its big theological point… There is comfort and expansiveness in that moment.” The piece, though, has a rather tentative conclusion. “The final Amen, because we don’t know where this situation is leading, it doesn’t resolve itself comfortably,” said the composer.

“I hope it speaks to the mood of the moment,” Whitehead said, “that it’s interesting and comforting to people… I am mindful all that those who seek to heal and alleviate our distress are doing. What an incredible job that is.  If nothing else, it’s a prayer of thankfulness for them. We hope they don’t do themselves damage in caring for others.”

Father Walker himself is joining the ranks of those who are caring for others, and began service this week as a volunteer chaplain at the 387-bed Bart’s Hospital, Britain’s oldest.  “It’s my duty, really,” Walker said, noting that the hospital grounds make up more than half of his geographical parish. While continuing to serve as the city’s cancer and heart care center, a large part of Bart’s is now devoted to intensive care for those sick with COVID-19. “It’s not unlikely that there will be more people temporarily resident in this parish with coronavirus than without it,” Walker noted. It’s part of the call to care, to minister to these people.”

The hospital is located right next to the church, and both were founded together in 1123 by Rahere, King Henry I’s former court jester, who had a vision of St. Bartholomew when he fell ill while on pilgrimage in Rome. The saint commanded Rahere to return home and found a hospital in his name. St. Bartholomew’s Church was where the monks who tended the sick worshipped together each day. Care at the hospital has always been free of charge.

Walker said that the relationship between the church and the hospital is strong, and that it has been a positive place for the chaplaincy team to work. He’s also in the process of hiring an assistant priest for Great St. Bart’s who will also serve part time as a chaplain at the hospital. Resurrecting an ancient title, the assistant will be known as the “hospitaller.”

Walker says it’s fitting that Bart’s Hospital is at the center of caring for coronavirus victims. Smithfield, the surrounding neighborhood, suffered badly during the Black Death. The hospital itself cared for the sick, and the famous Smithfield meat market nearby helped to spread the infection — “it was a warren of rats.”  London’s largest plague pit, which may hold as many as 50,000 bodies, is located in Charterhouse Square, less than a quarter mile from the church.

Walker says the current virus has taken a toll on his own congregation. “A number of our parishioners have had it,” Walker said. “Two have died. Of the ones I know of, five to 10 percent of our Sunday congregation are infected.” Great St. Bart’s has between 180 and 200 worshippers at Sunday services.

“It is causing a lot of fear,” Walker said. But he also points to members of his congregation stepping up to care for each other. “I put up a message — sign up if you would like any prayers, help, Communion brought to you, or if you would like to help.  Forty to one, the messages came back that people want to help.  People in the parish are delivering groceries, calling up so people on their own don’t feel so isolated.” Walker has set up a system of distributing consecrated hosts to members of the parish, so they can make their communions at home while watching live-streamed Eucharists. “They haven’t banned take-away food,” Walker quipped, “I don’t see so much difference between this and a chicken tikka marsala.”

Walker is also hoping to maintain connections and support for the members of his choir, a group of freelance musicians from across the city.  The government will eventually provide assistance to them, 80% of their 2019 wages, but this comes on a quarterly basis.“They have to wait until June for that. We’re hoping to pay them for the next three months, at least what they would have received from us.”

Great St. Bart’s is reaching out for help because its own coffers have been depleted by the lack of Sunday collections and because of cancelled film sessions (scenes have been filmed there for Four Weddings and A Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, and The Other Boleyn Girl,  among many other films and television programs). A video recording of the anthem is circulating widely on Facebook and Youtube, with an accompanying appeal in support of the church’s choristers.


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