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Angela Tilby: Prayer in a crisis needs active verbs

11 March 2022


Olga Line, whose family are trapped in Ukraine, prays before a lit candle in Windsor Parish Church, on Monday

Olga Line, whose family are trapped in Ukraine, prays before a lit candle in Windsor Parish Church, on Monday

“WE PRAY for the people of Ukraine. . .” How often have I heard, and prayed, like this in church. A generalised bidding, not really addressed to God at all, followed by an emotive moment: “We feel so helpless. . .”; and then petition: “Inspire us to. . .”; ending with a rather weak plea for “a ceasefire”, “aid”, or “peace”, which can sound as though we are asking God to stop disturbing us with horrific images of other people’s suffering.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prayers have been written for public use which are simply bland, too reliant on the old semi-Pelagian belief that all we can really expect of God is that God will help us to help ourselves. Get out the chequebook; petition the government on refugees. I am not saying that we should not do these things: I have been tweeting all week for a more open welcome to fleeing Ukrainians.

But, in times of crisis, prayer needs some active verbs, some genuine calling on God, as though he had some capacity to do something, some hope that God can weave his will through human pride and actually save those who are fighting for, or fleeing, their homeland. I know that this raises horribly difficult theological issues about how and whether God actually can intervene in human affairs. But, in a faith with resurrection at its heart, it seems wrong not to call on God as one who has the power and will to make a difference.

It is also important not to fear taking sides. Not all conflicts are one-sided, but this one comes pretty close. Unless you are a signed-up member of the Stop the War coalition, it is difficult simply to equate the defensive purpose of NATO with the aggression being meted out to Ukraine. And a prayer for a just outcome need not preclude our repentance for our failures.

This is a prayer that I wrote on the day of the invasion:

O God, King of the Nations, Holy Wisdom, pour down the peace from above on Russia and Ukraine. Protect their freedoms, unite their peoples in friendship,
and give us, who rightly fear the wrath of war, repentance and right judgement, in Jesus Christ our Lord.

As the situation worsens, I think something stronger is needed. So here’s a first try:

Merciful and mighty God, send down your power from on high to quench the rage of war.

Burn up the fuel of aggression, destroy all lying tongues, suppress the profits of violence, and, because no one is without sin, unveil our own complicity.

Bear up the broken and defend them under the wings of your protection, and send the strong peace that comes from above to heal all wounds, relieve all griefs, and set all peoples free, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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