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Formulary Friday: God and Nature in the BCP

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Posted by Adam Young, 9 Sep 2016

The Rev'd Adam Young asks how Anglicans should view the sovereignty of God in relation to weather, famine, disease, or plague.

Earlier this year the house of American politician Tony Perkins was destroyed in a flood. This would be hardly worthy of hitting the news, were it not for the fact that he had previously said that natural disasters were God’s judgement on America for supporting same sex marriage. Newspapers love a good bit of irony. It does rather beg the question though - was he right? As Anglicans how should we view the sovereignty of God in relation to weather, famine, disease, or plagues? 

Hidden away near the start of the Book of Common Prayer, sandwiched between the Litany and the Collects, is a small section entitled ‘Prayers and Thanksgivings.’ The ‘Prayers’ part was first added in embryonic form as part of the Litany in 1549, but it was not until 1559 that it was made into a separate section. The ‘Thanksgivings’ were then added in 1604 after the early Puritans petitioned - quite rightly - for their inclusion. It is within this section that ten prayers speak about natural disasters and God’s judgement. Just reading through the following prayers should make it pretty clear what the confessional Anglican position is:

A prayer for rain,
for fair weather,
in time of dearth and famine (1),
in time of dearth and famine (2),
in the time of any common plague or sickness,
a thanksgiving for rain,
for fair weather,
for plenty,
for deliverance from the plague or other common sickness (1),
for deliverance from the plague or other common sickness (2). 

A few things from these prayers are worth looking at more closely. 

Firstly, they often ground themselves in Biblical stories. The prayer for fair weather launches straight into the story of Noah (which it clearly thinks actually happened historically - perhaps why the reference was dropped from the American Prayer Book), the second prayer for famine considers 2 Kings 4.25, 7.1-6, whilst the prayer for common plague mentions both Numbers 16.44-50 and 2 Samuel 24.15-25. There are at least ten other biblical references contained in these short prayers. Not only should the grounding of these prayers in the Bible impress upon us the need to frame our own prayers biblically but also inform the respect with which we should consider our historic liturgy.

Secondly, these prayer focus on the reasons why we should pray in the first place. We ask for relief not only for our own comfort but for God’s glory, that we might help the poor, and even so that we can tell others of His goodness. If our prayers are often not answered because we ask wrongly then these prayers show us how to get our motives true that we might ask rightly. 

Finally, we must consider the relationship between sin and nature. Nearly every one of these ten prayers links the natural disaster in view to sin and rightly-deserved judgement. These natural disasters are something that “we for our iniquities have worthily deserved” and that “we do most justly suffer for our iniquity.” They are instruments of a God of “wrath” through which we are “for our sins punished” and “justly humbled.” The BCP could not be clearer that God uses nature to punish and bring His people to humble repentance. Indeed, in the prayer for fair weather it is explicitly repentance for sin combined with God’s great loving-kindness which is credited with causing God to bring relief. In the other prayers and thanksgivings it is God’s love, mercy, pity, and covenant faithfulness which is credited with there either having been a response to prayer or the belief that there will be. 

It is important to note that whilst one of these prayers was first written with a specific event in mind (namely the ‘sweating sickness’ of 1551 being behind the original prayer against plague and sickness) they are all pretty general. These prayers are just as applicable in 2016 as they were in 1662. Despite their focus on human sin being a cause of disaster these prayers never, ever, specify a single sin as connected to a specific disaster. This is crucially important. The truth is that Tony Perkins was both wrong and foolish for pointing to one particular sin and then pointing to a particular natural disaster. He was not wrong though on the basic principle behind his mistaken and unfortunate pronouncements. 

The God portrayed in the Bible and shown in the doctrine contained in these prayers is a God who is absolutely and totally sovereign over everything. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and His say-so. Weather is completely under His control, as is disease and sickness. If we are to ever give thanks that someone survived safely during an earthquake or hurricane, or a flood missed our church, we must accept God was in control of every aspect of the earthquake, hurricane, or flood. 

All of this should inform our prayer life, give us confidence that our prayers can be answered, and humble us. Our churches should not shy away from praying actively over natural disasters, praying for a change of weather, and teaching about how God uses these things to build up the saints and change their hearts, to His greater fame and glory.

The Rev'd Adam Young is a minister in York Diocese.

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