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Prayer is now a cultural problem

06 May 2016

The Archbishops’ call for national intercession raises new questions, says John Saxbee

Calling: the website of the Pentecost prayer initiative by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York

Calling: the website of the Pentecost prayer initiative by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York

God heard the embattled nations sing and shout

Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”

God this, God that, and God the other thing —

“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out.”

SO OBSERVED the poet J. C. Squire during the First World War, and he poses a serious challenge to calls for national times of prayer.

It is not just that two warring nations might be simultaneously seeking to recruit God’s support for ultimately incompatible causes. He also raises questions about what kind of God is likely to be more motivated to act when a large number of people offer the same prayer than would be the case if fewer did so: is it like a referendum, when the majority carries the day? This, in its turn, prompts us to ask what exactly we are doing when we pray, and especially when we pray corporately in the cause of a common objective.

Calling on countries, churches, and communities to pray for causes ranging from the abatement of plague to the eradication of poverty or the conversion of England, has a long and often controversial history. Now, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have summoned the Church to a week of prayer for the nation to know Jesus; so we might ask what is going on here.

TO SOME extent, the answer lies in the way that the Archbishops have framed this call. Their emphasis is on how the very practice of prayer can help to conform us more closely to the pattern of Jesus’s life and teaching, so that, in meeting us, others will meet him.

If that can be the case for individuals, then presumably the same can be said for a prayerful community, and it can be plausibly claimed that, if you want to see what the Kingdom of God is like, visit a church near you.

This emphasis on prayer as the means whereby Christians can be strengthened in their discipleship, and so make Jesus more attractive to others, is welcome, and worth embracing. Furthermore, it tells us something about how approaches to prayer, and especially calls to prayer, have changed over time.

The Archbishops’ initiative is clearly different from wartime archiepiscopal exhortations to prayer, or even Archbishop Donald Coggan’s Call to the Nation in 1975. It is about rallying the troops rather than an attempt to mobilise the nation — more Elizabeth I at Tilbury than Lord Kitchener pointing the finger at YOU.

The reasons for this are both cultural and theological. Culturally, there has been a shift in attitudes to authority and the Establishment. Archbishops can no longer count on a hearing when they set out to address the population at large.

Snippets from sermons preached at Christmas and Easter might make it on to the news, and the popular press may occasionally make merry with a bowdlerised account of a lecture on, for example, sharia. Otherwise, though, the post-modern world has little truck with ex cathedra pronouncements.

ARCHIEPISCOPAL calls to the nation to pray or fight or shape up morally are now culturally problematic. And, when it comes to calling the Church to co-ordinated periods of prayer, there are also theological factors to be taken into account.

As we seek to make sense of intercessory and petitionary prayer, we need to hold in balance divine sovereignty, human freedom, and modern world-views. If, for much of Christian history, God’s direct intervention in worldly affairs in response to prayer has been taken for granted, modern emphases on individual liberty and scientific positivism have caused many to think again.

Is such divine intervention consistent with God’s gift of free will: does not the mechanistic predictability of the natural world preclude such “strong” interventions?

Radically orthodox theology and the hitherto unforeseen vagaries of sub-atomic physics have challenged such “closed-world” assumptions. But we cannot disinvent the Enlightenment, and the case for direct divine intervention continues to be treated with some suspicion.

The case for “weak” interventions, however — whereby God works through natural processes, including human agency, to answer prayers — remains a theological favourite, as does the case for prayer as a psychological trigger, influencing human wills, attitudes, and actions. Our prayers for a better world dispose us towards being agents for a better world.

THIS all amounts to saying that, notwithstanding the impact of modernity on the way prayer is understood, the concept of prayer as a factor in nurturing faith, hope, and Christlike love in Christian disciples remains strong.

That is reflected in the Archbishops’ latest appeal. It calls for Christians to participate in a concentrated period of prayer, so that, to use their word, the love and truth of Jesus “overflows” into the world around us — and our nation will come to know him better, and love him more.

Of course, there will be those who will regret that this initiative has not been co-ordinated on a more ecumenical basis. Others will accuse the Archbishops of lacking the confidence to mount a prophetic challenge to the country as a whole rather than just address the Church. Yet others will lament a perceived lack of faith in God’s sovereign power when it comes to the nation’s knowing Jesus.

We do not, however, breathe the same cultural air, or inhabit the same theological environment, as Archbishop Coggan a mere 40 years ago. The priority given to prayer throughout the Bible, and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus, must continue to inform our discipleship and witness.

And yet, if the emphasis is now placed on prayer as changing the world by forming Christian character, stimulating Christlike action, and enriching our relationship with God — who calls us to be exemplars of Christ in his work of redemption and renewal — then that may not be altogether a bad thing.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln and the author of What Happens When We Pray? (Kevin Mayhew, 2016).

For information about the Archbishops’ initiative visit: http://thykingdom.co.uk/.

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