Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

God's Terrible Voice: Liturgical Response to the Great Fire of London

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

God's Terrible Voice: Liturgical Response to the Great Fire of London

Article excerpt

invents that touch us the most profoundly are very often the times when we sense the most immediately God's presence in our lives. This is true whether those events are happy or unhappy, but it has commonly been observed that God speaks loudest through pain. Sudden, severe pain causes an instinctive reaction by the body as a whole: it coalesces the body's attention, and leaves no time for any but the most authentic response. This holds for humans as individuals and in groups, and at such times, more that any other, both show most clearly something of their fundamental nature. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was certainly such an occasion, affecting all of English society. Because the Church of England was so central to English life, the nation had to respond to the disaster through the church; and a special service for the purpose was created (and commanded to be performed throughout the country) within a month. The nation's response to the fire became part of its identity: the service was appended to the Book of Common Prayer, and as time and temper changed, underwent a revision thirty years later. These two services amount to a practical demonstration of lex orandi, lex credendi, and offer a unique perspective on the culture and theology of the time.

The Great Fire started on the night of Sunday, 2 September 1666, in the bakehouse of Thomas Faryner, baker to the king, in Pudding Lane. London at the time was essentially still a medieval city, walled, with narrow streets and buildings crowded together and constructed of extremely flammable materials (timber, watde and daub, plaster and pitch); and equipment in use for fighting fires had barely altered since Roman times.1 The city's vulnerability to fire had been a matter of public discussion for many years. The fire was out of control from the start and spread quickly, fanned by a strong east wind, jumping whatever firebreaks had been created. By Tuesday afternoon it had jumped the city walls and burned unchecked until late Wednesday, when the wind dropped and efforts at containment could take hold. The fire was officially considered to have been extinguished on Thursday, 6 September, after four and a half days.

Though, given the fire's extent and severity, there was astonishingly little loss of life (estimates vary, but they do not exceed twenty killed), London had been left a "vast, unrecognizable, blackened ruin", suffering devastation within the walled area of the city worse than that inflicted during the Blitz in World War II.2 It destroyed over thirteen thousand houses; eighty-four churches (including the Cathedral of St. Paul's); great public buildings such as the Custom House, the Guildhall, and Blackwell Hall; Newgate and Ludgate Prisons; and the city gates.3 The total loss was estimated at ten million pounds, at a time when the city's annual income was approximately twelve thousand pounds.4 The fire "obliterated at a stroke virtually every trace of a medieval city that had been six centuries in the making."5 Some at the time thought it could never be rebuilt.

Though there is no proof, there is today general agreement among historians6 that the fire began by either accident or negligence: most probably either Faryner or one of his staff failed properly to douse their ovens at the end of the day. Faryner himself vehemently (and understandably) denied this at the Par* * * 7 liamentary inquiry initiated immediately following the fire, and at the time it was impossible to believe that such terrible devastation could have occurred simply by accident: there had to have been some larger design, whether human or divine. The fire followed by one year the Plague of 1665, which killed (again, estimates vary) somewhere between seventy thousand and one hundred thousand people, representing a loss of over ten percent of the city's total population.8 To many, two such cataclysmic natural disasters occurring in such quick succession was proof of divine wrath at work. …

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