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?


  1. Robin says

    Those Scottish Episcopalians during the Penal Times who refused to pray for the Hanoverian monarchs did so not because they thought the Hanoverian monarchs were people too bad to be prayed for, but because they thought that they weren’t monarchs at all, but usurpers. The parallel in the case of Trump would be if Trump had fraudulently acquired the Presidency in some manner contrary to the US Constitution, and so was not, properly speaking, President at all. I suppose the nearest comparison would be if a citizen of one of the Confederate states in 1861-65 had refused to pray publicly for Jefferson Davis as President because she believed that Davis was a usurper and the constitutional President of the whole United States was Abraham Lincoln.

    BTW if you want to see snuff-taking and sneezing at the prayers for the Sovereign, come to the Royal Martyr Church Union celebration next Thursday at 11.30 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Palmerston Place, Edinburgh . . .

    • One of the two things that I remember from Fr Gian’s teaching on the Eucharist in my TISEC days was his enthusiastic snuff habit.

    • Grace Burson says

      Well, given that Trump “won” only by the skin of his teeth and likely because of foreign interference and partisan meddling by the head of the FBI, the parallel may be pretty close, after all.

  2. Whit Johnstone says

    Kelvin, my objection is not to the continued tradition of the post-inaugural prayer service, but to the Cathedral Choir’s willingness to be part of the entertainment at the inauguration itself. Many entertainers have chosen to boycott the inauguration because they disapprove of the President-Elect. Many opponents of the President Elect have decided to boycott any performer who performs at the inauguration. Indeed, acts who perform at the inauguration may be subject to a no-platforming campaign. This was the threat that forced Andrea Botichelli to withdraw from Trump’s inauguration. Therefore, performing at the inauguration will be construed as a partisan gesture of support for President Trump. Of course, refusing to perform would have been construed as a partisan gesture of opposition to President Trump. And since the Trump inaguration team approached the Cathedral about performing, the Cathedral had to say yes or no. There was no neutral, nonpartisan answer. The National Cathedral seeks to be neutral and nonpartisan, and since it had been perceieved as a Democratic institution while Fr. Gary Hall was dean, I understand why Dean Hollerith felt he had to say yes, to say to Republicans, “yes you are still welcome in TEC”. But that welcome will come at the price of making opponents of Trump feel distinctly unwelcome in the National Cathedral for as long as Fr. Hollerith is dean. Yes, he’s between a rock and a hard place on this one.

  3. Meg Rosenfeld says

    Generally we say “Amen.” Speaking only for a small parish in San Francisco, depending on the celebrant’s choice of which prayer to use, we include in our petition, after mentioning the President of the US and the Governor of California, “all in civil authority” or “all leaders in the Bay Area.”

    And why not? We are, after all, praying that those who have some responsibility for our well-being will be properly disposed to behave in a just and compassionate manner; their behavior has a great effect on all our lives. And this is wrong because–?

    • I agree with you Meg – that’s exactly how I think of praying for those in authority.

      I also think the BCP collect that I quoted is a very good collect for praying for a president with whom one disagrees.

      • Meg Rosenfeld says

        Absolutely! And that’s just what we’ll be doing for a few years now . . . .

  4. Gillian Barr says

    You are, along w/ many others, conflating the prayer service at the Cathedral on the day after the inauguration with the choir singing in the prelude to the inauguration ceremony itself. Few are objecting to the former, though some are disappointed that the PEOTUS’s team was allowed to declare that there would not be a sermon in the service. No one is objecting to praying for Trump, either in the service or in our weekly parish services. Almost all the objections are to the performance by the choirs in the inauguration. The prelude has almost nothing to do w/ prayer, at least in the eyes of those who will witness the inauguration. They see it as a performance, not a sung prayer.

    • Actually, I’ve seen a number of people complaining about praying for Trump in weekly parish services chatting about it on facebook.

      I do see that the inauguration is different to the service in the cathedral. However, I can still see this from both sides.

  5. Dear Father Kerlvin,

    We do, indeed, all need prayer, with the bible advising that we should pray for our enemies as well as our friends. My heart goes out to you in Glasgow, when the conservative minority criticizes you for cooperating with the Muslim community in your city. Mistakes can be made with the content of prayers offered and statements made in God’s house; but God must by now be used to our mistakes and allows for them: “Where charity and love are, there is God”
    Agape, Father Ron Smith, ACANZP

  6. Robin says

    On the Sunday after the Dunblane massacre in the church I then attended, the intercessions included a prayer for the repose of the soul of Thomas Hamilton, the gunman. To my horror and incredulity, one person vociferously objected to this. If you accept the propriety of offering prayers for the dead, surely it’s hard to imagine someone who needed them more than Thomas Hamilton?

  7. Perhaps the most appropriate prayer might be, ‘…ne POTUS noceat’.

  8. I can see both sides of this – but the hinge is where we have been praying by name for Barack and now won’t say Donald — a pick and choose – reminds me of a priest who when happy with you would press the wafer into your hand and say your name – but when mad would drop the wafer from about a foot over your hand and not say your name.
    And the US Constitution says “Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — different nuance from separation of church and state.

  9. You get an Amen from this American Episcopalian.

  10. John-Julian. OJN says

    At the root of all this discussion is the unasked and unanswered question:”What does ‘praying for someone’ do for her or him?” I mean, do these people think our praying for (or against!) Trump will affect him in any way? Will he be happier, healthier, stronger, louder, less mean, less nasty if prayed for than if not prayed for? What is gained (or lost) by either praying for him or omitting prayers for him?
    It seems to me that the issue here is not the actual prayers but our feeling ABOUT those prayers (or absence of them).
    If we use Aquinas’s definition of love as “willing the good for the other” and apply it to prayer—it seems that we are unquestionably bidden to “will good” for our neighbor and so it seems that it doesn’t matter if we like her or him, we have a mandate to love—and intercessory prayer could surely be said to be a branch on the tree of love! Praying for Trump is not going to affect him at all—but it will definitely affect us who pray……..for the better.
    (I quickly add that I believe Trump is a monster—but a monster who happens to be our neighbor!)

    • Yes– keeps me centered and less reactive. Part of respecting the dignity of every human being (Baptismal Covenant – BCP) — hard as that is. Michelle Obama – they go low — we go high.

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