Praying for the Powerful

Just over four years ago, I was on sabbatical in the USA and one of the institutions that I visited was Washington National Cathedral in the US capital. It is an odd entity in many ways, carrying with it what feels very much like a load of assumptions about established religion in a land where religion is not established. There’s no doubting that the cathedral is there for America rather than simply for its city or its locality as that is what it was built for and determined in foundation documents. Yet the paradox is that America proudly believes in the separation of church and state in a way which might lead one to believe made a National cathedral an impossibility. As usual, religious people manage to hold the paradox together, believe 6 impossible things before breakfast and Washington National Cathedral has a place in the life of the United States that can’t really be explained with logic alone.

When I visited, the question that the cathedral faced was what happened if Obama were to lose the election. Not because the cathedral cared particularly about Obama winning but because his opponent was a Mormon. No-one knew what would happen. Would a Mormon president want a liturgical act at an Episcopal cathedral or not? And work was being done to try to find out. It is the nature of conservative institutions to work very hard to adapt to circumstances and all cathedrals are inherently conservative in that sense. That’s what often makes them places where radical things can happen.

There is currently a hoo-ha about whether the choir from Washington National Cathedral should sing at the inauguration of President Trump on Friday. The word has gone out that the choir will sing and there’s quite a lot of people who think that is inappropriate given the mores and peccadilloes of the incoming president.

I can see this one from both sides. It seems unsurprising to me that the cathedral would want the choir to accept the invitation. Otherwise, they are going to have to vet every incoming president’s agenda for suitability in the future and that is not a comfortable place to find oneself. It seems to me that one either accepts all the invitations or none of them. One cannot get into the business of picking and choosing or else one will forever be in the midst of conflict and forever be upsetting half the country.

However, I can also see it from the side of those who want something to protest about. Trump is a baffling figure to the liberal establishment at prayer. He is their worst nightmare. Why should the church turn out on parade for someone seen as an ogre? Are there no limits? Isn’t Trump so far removed from normality that normal presumptions no longer apply?

There’s a similar connected discussion about whether there should be a liturgical celebration for the new president in the National Cathedral and indeed about how or whether people are going to pray for the new president in US Episcopal churches across the country.

There’s a wee nugget of Scottish Episcopalian church history that our US daughter church might want to be aware of in trying to work their way through these dilemmas. However, before I get to that, I think it is worth noting that it can matter hugely whom one is praying for.

A significant part of my time of formation for priesthood was spent in Egypt living with the Coptic church and also with Anglicans in Cairo. In that environment I learnt about subtle and not so subtle forms of persecution and have never forgotten the response of one Coptic bishop when I asked him why a particular sectarian attack on Copts had taken place. He leaned back on his chair and stroked his not inconsiderable beard and said very sadly: “attacks take place because we do not love our Muslim brothers and sisters enough”. I’ve never forgotten those words from someone who himself could have been a target of violence. (They were spoken in the compound which was recently blown up with great loss of life just a few weeks ago).

The point is that at that time in most of the big churches in Cairo (Anglican and Coptic) people were very careful to pray for the then president Hosni Mubarak. The reason they were keen to pray for him was that there would generally be a couple of well dressed young men in the congregation to check that such loyal prayers were being uttered. The secret police were not really that secret. The government was always just checking up and people prayed with an implied threat over them at all times.

When I was in the USA – I was immediately intrigued by one aspect of the intercessions that is connected with praying for the powerful. Wherever I went I found that the intercessions contained prayers for the Archbishop of Canterbury. That is unremarkable in the USA but to a Scottish Episcopalian on tour it was a revelation. We tend to pray for our diocesan bishops and sometimes (but not that often) for the Primus, and almost never for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, not praying for the Archbishop of Canterbury is almost a part of who we are.

The prayers for the Archbishop in the USA illuminate the incredible hurt caused by Rowan Williams and his successor in snubbing the American church and persistently misunderstanding or misrepresenting its polity. “We prayed (and also often paid) for your ministry” you can feel the US Episcopalians wailing in their distress. We played the pipe for you and you refused to dance.

But back to the Scottish Episcopal Church – that church which blessed the US Episcopalians into being.

For controversy about prayers for the powerful are a big part of our history. At times in our history, the safety and wellbeing of those gathered in church was directly connected with which monarch was being prayed for in the prayers. I am not the first Episcopal priest in this city who needed to worry about safety and security for the congregation. Prayers for the House of Stewart could (and sometimes did) lead to violence.

Gradually it became the practise of Episcopalians in this part of the world to pray for the ruling House of Hanover. However, not all in the pews ever really got there.

American Episcopalians today might be interested in the historical records of Scottish Episcopalians in the pews faced with clergy who, rightly or wrongly, and for a whole range of reasons believed that they had to pray for the Hanoverian regime.

There are records of congregations going to divine worship and when the state prayers for the House of Hanover were read those in the pews simply and loudly slammed their prayerbooks shut or coughed loudly.

There’s even reports of people deliberately partaking of snuff in the pews at the contentious moment the better to affect a snuffling, coughing and sneezing fit.

Now, let us finish with a prayer from the wonderful US Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world:
We commend this nation to thy merciful care,
that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace.
Grant to the President of the United States,
the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth),
and to all in authority,
wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will.
Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness,
and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

Now, do I hear the people say Amen?

Or Aaaah-choooo?

How to write the intercessions

This coming Sunday, I’m going to be doing the intercessions on Sunday morning. That’s unusual, as for no particular reason, the normal pattern is that clergy here pray at Choral Evensong and lay members of the congregation normally pray at the Sung Eucharist in the morning.

So, as I sit down to think about the intercessions for Sunday morning, it may be worth jotting down here a few pointers which I might use if I were doing an intercessions training course this week.

  1. Try not to treat God as either your best mate or as Queen Victoria
  2. One sermon is enough and it has already happened
  3. Don’t tell God the blatantly obvious
  4. You don’t have to pray for everything in the world at every service
  5. God is not to be inveigled – we pray because we care not because God doesn’t

Let’s take those one at a time.

1 – Try not to treat God as either your best mate or as Queen Victoria

Now listen up, we’re about to do some serious theology in an entertaining way. (Or maybe some entertaining theology in a serious way).

How we think of God in private makes quite a difference to the way we pray in public. The task of the intercessor in a church service is not particularly to express their own spiritual journey but more to give voice in the simplest possible way to the need that the people of God in that time and place have to pray. For we are a praying people – that is who we are.

But what about God. How are we to address God?

We might well ask, “God? Who He?”

To which God in Her infinite mercy and grace might well respond, “Well….”

There are twin dangers in preparing the prayers of the people of God. The first is to presume that God is one’s best friend to whom we might chatter away as though God were a beloved friend (or a beloved beloved) on the telephone. The truth is, we are dealing with the creator of heavens and the earth. Chattering away may seem presumptive.

“And Lord, just bless Betty and Flora and Lullabell. And just fill them Lord, fill them Lord with your blessings, just touch them Jesus, yes Lord, yes, yes. yes.”

God is more than merely our best mate and we’re not in bed with God when we’re doing the intercessions either. (And that’s for another blog post anyway).

However, lest we think that there are easy answers, another danger is of treating God as though God were Queen Victoria, crawling towards God through a morass of language which puts God far distant. If we spend our time only thinking of the Majestyness of God, the Mightiness of that Majestyness, our Unworthiness as Creeping Subjects to enter into the presence of the Awesome Holiness of the Utter Mightiness of the Complete Majestyness of God and begging for Mercy then we’re in danger of mistaking the God who loves us for the Empress of India.

The theologians out there have spotted what’s going on here already. It is that old immanence-transcendence dichotomy. Christians have indeed believed that God is as close as our next breath and also that God is the creator of heaven and earth. Christians believe both these things simultaneously – for nothing is impossible with God.

What we’re trying to do in the intercessions is to hold before God aspects of the world which need God’s love and there are many appropriate ways of addressing God.

It is clearly silly always to speak to God as though God were an old man or a father figure. Clearly silly, because we’ve got God’s great gift of scripture in our hands and we know that the people of God have used all kinds of interesting language to speak of the divine and to address God too which go beyond only using the image of a male father figure. Scripture won’t let us make God into daddy and I’m unconvinced that Jesus was in that business when he taught people the Lord’s Prayer. More likely I think, he was using a form of addressing God which made them think, made them wonder, moved them and formed them in faith.

At a workshop on intercession a couple of years ago, I asked people to come up with biblical titles or attributes of God which we find in the bible. We listed dozens and it is exercises like that which can deepen our faith and make intercessions incredibly rich. If you doubt this, ask a Muslim friend about the ninety nine names of God in their tradition and see how many you share in common. If you are lazy, you can find them in wikipedia – but go on, have that conversation it might change your life and that of your friend.

2 – One sermon is enough and it has already happened

You know what? One sermon is enough for just about any service. Sometimes even the sermon that has been preached feels like one too many. However, even if that is so – no, especially if that is so, don’t feel that your job as the intercessor is to preach another one.

Let red flags wave and danger klaxons sound in your mind if you find yourself for even a moment telling the congregation anything during the intercessions. Remember, you’re not speaking to them anyway.

We encourage intercessors to take a look at the bible readings before writing the intercessions. However, it is terribly tempting to pay too much attention to the readings. Particularly in St Mary’s, you never know whether the preacher will pick on the particular reading that might strike you as important and there’s a strong change that they’ll have a completely off the wall reading of a text anyway. That’s what we like here and intercessors are in grave danger if they think they know what the preacher is going to say. They are in mortal danger if they think they know what the preacher should have said. And in any church, if the intercessor appears to be trying to use the intercessions to correct the preacher, there will be teams of trained facilitators and peacemakers heading your way before the blood can dry on the carpet.

There’s a time and a place for disagreeing with the preacher. However, it ain’t in the intercessions and, trust me on this one, the church door isn’t the most fantastic place for it either.

It is worth reading the bible readings beforehand simply to see whether that informs the language that you use in putting the prayers together. Your task is not to explain these readings. Nor explicate these readings. Nor even to argue with these readings. Your task is to hold some of the concerns of the people of God in prayer in public.

3 – Don’t tell God the blatantly obvious

One of the naughtiest but most entertaining half hours that I’ve ever enjoyed on a clergy conference was with a group who were posed the question – “What is the most ridiculous intercession you have ever heard?”

(You can play a similar game with sermons if you are in the mood).

There were quite a number of strong contenders but there was one knock-out winner:

“And Lord, we pray for Beirut….which is in the Lebanon”.

Don’t tell God things that God knows already. You are no more trying to educate God than educate the people.

4 – You don’t have to pray for everything in the world at every service

Just as new preachers often try to fit everything that they’ve ever hoped to say in the pulpit into their first few sermons, so it is the case that inexperienced intercessors can get frightened that they will miss something out and include everything that they can imagine that they or anyone else might want to pray for on the day.

We’re not there to remember everything. We’re there to give voice to the deep dreamings of the people of God for a world where there is no pain, no suffering and where God has wiped every tear from the eye.

When we remember those suffering in one part of the world we are by implication remembering those who suffer elsewhere. Sure, it can be a good thing to remember places and situations which are often easily forgotten (“….oh Lord, #bringbackourgirls…”) but we can’t name every need.

There’s danger in being too specific too. “And Lord we pray that this country be delivered from the evil heresy of the European Union…” may be how you are feeling and may be how you are going to vote, but the intercessions are not really the place for that kind of thing.

We’re giving voice to the prayers of the whole people of God, not any sectarian minority.

5 – God is not to be inveigled – we pray because we care not because God doesn’t

I think this is important. I don’t believe God is there to be inveigled into doing things. It is my view that God is not particularly likely to change his mind as though upon a whim, because a certain number of the people of God happen to pray one way. God loves us anyway, whether we pray or whether we don’t.

We are not in the business of trying to sway God’s mind.

This will come as a bit of a surprise to some and something that will be eagerly debated by others – don’t we find God changing God’s mind in scripture after all?

Well, yes, and that’s what life often feels like. We can as human beings often feel as though god is capricious. But that is not the truth we live by. We live by the truth that God utterly loves us. We live in the knowledge that God’s love is here and now and everywhere and that God’s love is with us and with all people.

The point of the intercessions is not to change God’s mind about things. This is not a parliamentary lobby nor is it a demo though there’s a place for prayer in both these fields without a doubt.

We do not pray to change God’s mind. We pray because it is our vocation to hold our concerns in the presence of God. We pray because we love the world and want to love it more. We pray because prayer changes us and we change society. We pray because we care about things and people and not because we suspect God’s doesn’t care about some things and will have a change of mind because we implore and beg and inveigle.

It just doesn’t work that way.

We pray to hold the world before God because we love it.

That is all in all.