‘We’re not very good at encouragement’

by
12 April 2019

Pete Greig, the instigator of 24-7, tells Madeleine Davies that he is witnessing the most significant movement of prayer in a generation

ED PEERS

Pete Greig

Pete Greig

AFTER each year’s Thy Kingdom Come cathedral services, Pete Greig has heard from two sorts of complainers: “The people who think it was riotous and inappropriate, and the people who think it was the most boring, tame thing ever. If I only get complaints from one side, I’ll know that we’ve got it wrong.”

Since the Archbishops first wrote to clergy in 2016, asking them to take part in a week of prayer for evangelism at Pentecost (News, 5 February 2016), the “wave of prayer” has spread around the world. Last year’s “impact report” calculated that millions of Christians across 65 denominations and traditions in 114 countries had taken part.

As the “bewildered instigator” of the 24-7 Prayer movement — one of the original partners of Thy Kingdom Come — Mr Greig is keen to credit the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “courageous leadership”.

“I said ‘Don’t you think we had better start with one or two [cathedrals]?” he recalls. “It was his vision and faith — I was trying to talk him down — the five were full. Winchester was overflowing.”

IT IS now 20 years since Mr Greig led a small group praying for 24 hours a day in a warehouse in Chichester, inspired by Moravians in the village of Herrnhut, in Saxony, Germany.

“We realised that prayer is the key to everything in life, and we were bad at it,” he says. “I tried to stop that night-and-day prayer-room after two weeks, because I figured you should quit while you’re ahead; but someone else said that we should really keep going, and it’s thanks to them, not me, that we are now in more than half the nations on earth. No one could be more surprised than me.”

24-7 Prayer reports that there are now more than 10,000 prayer rooms in more than half the countries of the world. This includes Ibiza, where, for the past 19 years, members of 24-7 have spent time praying on the streets and giving out “Jesus loves Ibiza” Bibles. Every year, they also find themselves helping hundreds of people who are lost, drunk, drugged, or otherwise vulnerable.

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In recent years, the organisation has developed closer ties to Lambeth Palace. Prayer is one of Archbishop Welby’s three priorities, and his embrace of both 24-7 and the Chemin Neuf Community has signalled a desire to affirm a Charismatic spirituality sometimes viewed askance in the C of E. His oft-quoted maxim “There has never been a renewal of the spiritual life of the Church without a renewal of prayer” is echoed, almost word for word, by Mr Greig.

Both men also share a readiness to perceive good news amid the downward-sloping graphs that tend to accompany stories about Christianity in Britain. Thy Kingdom Come is “the most extraordinary story”, Mr Greig says. “We must banish cynicism, pinch ourselves, and realise what is happening on our watch. The sort of thing that many people have been dreaming of, and praying for, is taking place now. . .

“At a time of Brexit chaos and 24-hour digital porn, and all the other challenges between those two extremes, we really do need to pray. People who maybe a few years ago thought the great solution was political or economic are starting to think it might be time to vote Jesus, and one of the ways we can do that is through prayer.”

AGAINST a backdrop of a decline in religious affiliation and attendance, polling on prayer — the subject of Mr Greig’s new book — suggests that we continue to reach for God in times of need. A ComRes survey commissioned by Tearfund last year found that 51 per cent of respondents said that they prayed (the remainder ticked “Never”).

The most common reason, by far, was “in times of crisis”, securing a far higher response than “I believe in God” or “I believe that prayer makes a difference.” In How to Pray: A simple guide for normal people, Mr Greig notes that the word “pray” derives from the Latin precarius. “We pray because life is precarious.”

He tells the story of the war-zone surgeon David Nott, who told a BBC interviewer, “I am not religious. But every now and again . . . I do pray to God, and I ask him to help me, because, sometimes, I am suffering badly. . . I need him every now and again, but when I do need him he is certainly there.”

The artist Patrick Brill was inspired to transcribe the entire interview on to a canvas, which was displayed at the Royal Academy.

Prayer is a “missional connection point”, Mr Greig suggests: in two decades of 24-7, he has learned that “people almost never decline prayer”. Yet most people find prayer “difficult”, he thinks, and books on the subject tend to be “awfully complicated . . . aimed at people who are postgraduates in theology”.

In a foreword to How to Pray, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton (where Mr Greig served as Director of Prayer for seven years), suggests that “the only ones I could find were written decades ago, and had not stood the test of time”.

How to Pray takes readers through four simple stages of prayer: pause, rejoice, ask, and yield; and encourages them to draw on a “toolkit” of resources developed for the Prayer Course (part of Alpha International).

Each chapter also features a “hero of prayer”, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers to Susanna Wesley, Count Zinzendorf, and Corrie ten Boom. A significant amount of space is devoted to contemplation.

GREIG’s book is a reminder that a rich tradition of prayers and habits already exists. His own practices are eclectic, blending tongues with Ignatius’s prayer of examination (the “examen”), regular monastic retreats, and the Book of Common Prayer.

In a passage that he expects “many of your readers will love”, he describes how, for a period of time, he “couldn’t face” attending the Charismatic worship service at his own church. His wife, Sammy, was seriously ill, and “my heart was simply too vulnerable to run the gauntlet of spontaneity every week.” Sneaking away to the Anglican cathedral, “I was embarrassed to find myself sampling and even appreciating the kind of liturgy we had often denounced as ‘dead religion’, or ‘vain repetition’. . .

“When your soul is spent, and you’ve run out of imagination and initiative, it’s a relief to be told what to say by someone you trust. I also appreciated the sense of being part of something very old — bigger than my own chaotic predicament, and stronger than my own brittle resolve.”

After a few months, he began to miss “the familiar joy of free-flowing worship, and of church-built-on relationships, and of ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit”, but the experience has shaped his prayers.

Mr Greig told the story of Sammy’s illness in God on Mute: Engaging the silence of unanswered prayer (Kingsway, 2007), and How to Pray celebrates “a certain bloody-mindedness” in prayer. While Sammy was in hospital awaiting brain surgery, he told God, “If you’re planning to take my wife from me, if you’re planning to take a mum from her two little boys, well, you’re going to have to fight me for her.”

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The experience — Sammy still suffers from epilepsy — lends a certain weight to his testimony, which, while acknowledging the pain of God’s apparent silence, remains powered by the belief that “we get miracles far more often than we realise.”

For Greig, “we cannot, with any integrity, jettison or domesticate our belief in the power of petitionary prayer and still lay claim to any form of Christian orthodoxy.”

He is firmly in favour of people praying for a parking space.

AS A young man, Mr Greig worked with Jackie Pullinger, in Hong Kong, helping drug addicts, and he remains a strong believer in the spiritual warfare that he encountered there. Included in the book is the story of a friend, Jonathan, who, on the day of the 2018 Westminster Bridge attack, sensed danger so powerfully that he spent an hour pacing the streets and praying. Seven minutes after he stopped, Mr Greig writes, the attack took place in the precise place where Jonathan had been praying.

“We will never know for sure, this side of eternity, what difference Jonathan’s prayers made that day,” he concludes. “But what we do know is that the attack on Westminster Bridge the previous year left 50 people injured and five dead, but this incident killed no one, and left three people with only minor injuries.”

Another story is that of the father who found the mother of a baby in a large city by asking God for directions at every street corner he came to.

When I ask how he decides which stories to include in his writing, and how he balances the need to discern wisely with the danger of falling prey to cynicism, he quotes Douglas Coupland: “Cynicism is like battery acid — it’ll rot you. . . If your church is cynical, the church is dying. . . There is a certain naïvety, or optimism, which is essential for the people of God.”

But, he says, “I am very careful to check my facts. I work very hard at that.”

He is conscious that “the Church is often less honest than the Bible about the frustrations, the disappointments, the struggle of faith.”

AS SENIOR Pastor of Emmaus Rd, a church in Guildford, Mr Greig is part of the Boiler Room network: a group of non-denominational churches that are linked to 24-7. In an open letter to the country’s churches in 2016, he issued a plea for unity around the Nicene Creed, recommending “a posture of gracious, generous orthodoxy that keeps things simple, refusing to obsess about peripheral matters”.

The missive is not without provocation, including the suggestion that “the parish system is no longer sustainable in many rural contexts, and it is no longer helpful in many urban ones.”

But his message of unity in prayer appears to be resonating with the church leaders now lining up to support Thy Kingdom Come. This year, the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Coptic, and Redeemed Christian Church of God leaders of this country have all urged their churches to “pray together for Christian unity, in our life together, our witness, and our longing to see the Kingdom of God in the midst of our world”.

“I find it extraordinary”, Mr Greig tells me, “that almost every historical theological marker of spiritual renewal — you can tick that box right now.” Not only unity, but renewal of prayer, churches’ social engagement, and the growth of congregations in “hotspots” are all signs of this, he suggests, pointing to expansion among Vineyard churches and city-centre church-plants.

“I think sometimes in the Church — especially, if I may say so, the Church of England — we are not always very good at dealing with encouragement,” he says. “We are much better at dealing with death and discouragement. . . Every transformational renewal of the Spirit through church history began with a movement of prayer, and we are currently seeing the most significant movement of prayer in a generation.”

How to pray: A simple guide for normal people is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.60).

Listen to the full conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

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