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?

The Trump of Judgement for Liberals

Back at the end of September I suddenly saw that a Trump victory was possible. Suddenly, with a horrible clarity I could see that there was a credible way for him to get to the White House. And once it was credible, it suddenly seemed inevitable.

And for that reason, I don’t wake to a feeling of astonishment and surprise today. This American election result is not what I hoped for but it is kind of what I’ve spent large parts of the last few weeks not merely fearing but expecting.


It is rare that I wish that I had been wrong, but I do today.

The election of Donald Trump is to be deeply regretted. However, it also needs to be understood and those who regret it most deeply need to think not merely about how to cope with the news but about what comes next.

The true enormity of the defeat of Hilary Clinton has to be faced head on. I’m sorry for Hilary Clinton but this isn’t merely a personal defeat. It is a defeat of a whole set of liberal values that millions of us hold throughout the world. If we want to know where to go next with those values there are some tough truths that we need to face.

  • Donald Trump didn’t win the election despite being a xenophobe. He won it because he was a xenophobe.
  • Donald Trump didn’t win the election despite being sexist. He won it because he was sexist.
  • Donald Trump didn’t win the election despite being anti-LGBT. He won it because he was anti-LGBT.
  • Donald Trump didn’t win the election despite being unqualified for office. He won it because he was unqualified for office.
  • Donald Trump didn’t win the election despite being against every progressive value people like me hold. He won it because he was.

He won it because he was.

That’s the point.

That’s the fact that has to be faced. The enormity of that fact has to be faced. People wanted this. A majority of people wanted this.

It seems to me that people have used the ballot box to express a desire for change – change from a system which was not taking everyone along with it.

I feel the frustration myself. It is the frustration of seeing the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It is the frustration of seeing people hungry in the richest economies of the world. It is the frustration of seeing young people with no hope for jobs. It is the frustration of seeing social security systems undermined. It is the frustration of seeing pensions squeezed and being told that is a price worth paying. It is the frustration of seeing financial institutions rescued whilst blue-collar jobs have been seen as expendable.

There is much that is wrong with our world.

And one of the things that is wrong with the world is the presumption on the part of so many of us who hold liberal views that if things get more difficult for people then those same people will automatically turn with joy and thanksgiving to the solutions of the liberal-left. The reality is far from that. People who are frightened for themselves more often turn to the right.

This election result is a trump of judgement for those of us who are liberals. The #Brexit result was another such trump but I fear neither will be the last.

If we want liberal democracies then we will need to work for them them and fight for them and if I’m honest I’m still thinking through what that means for me personally on this rawest of political days.

Liberal complacency is partly to blame for the situation that we find ourselves in. Liberal values have largely kept the peace between nations in the West for 60 years. However, they have not kept everyone fed. And if you want peace, you must feed the poor.

So what comes next?

Somehow we need to remember to be kind to one another. And that means being kind to those with whom we disagree profoundly. Then we need to take joy in the small things. The sunrise, the love of lovers and the the light of a candle in the darkness are all unaffected by the political events of the last 24 hours.

But then we need to pick ourselves up and do what liberals do. We need to organise, protect, witness, learn and love.

We need to organise because that’s the way the world changes. People voted for change in this election. Let us never forget that they can vote for change again – in America, in the UK, all around the world. It is those who organise who have a head start in getting the change they hope for.

We need to protect because right now a load of people are going to be feeling vulnerable. We need to work out how to protect and stand alongside the Muslim who has heard the call to ban Muslims from entering the greatest economic power in the free world. Or the Mexican with relatives on both sides of the wall that is already being built in Trump’s mind. Or the woman who fears bringing an accusation against an abuser. Or the LGBT teenager who hears the most powerful people in the world talking about conversion therapy. Or so many others. People need to be protected. People we know need to be protected.

We need to witness to the fact that we believe in better values than those which have seemed to triumph today. That means taking a full part in the frightening world of public discourse that we now have. Social media can’t be put back in a bottle and bunged up only to be opened once we have learned how to deal with it. Those who wish to lead and guide need to be right in the midst of the people advocating things worth believing in and social media is right where the people are whether we like it or not. Church leaders need to note this particularly. The anodyne tweeting only of inane bible verses, where you went to bless a Mothers’ Union banner or excerpts from the Daily Office do not count as serious engagement with the modern world. Yes, the online world needs those things, and a dose of humour too, but it needs more than that. Our world needs ideas worth believing in and people who can articulate them in the prevailing culture.

We need to learn because our ideas need to change and because some of our ideas have not been fit for purpose. Only the most arrogant could simply believe that the majority of people in America were wrong without trying to learn something themselves. I fear more than Donald Trump that liberals will not learn the lessons of this day. Prosperity must be prosperity for a far wider group in society. Do we have the courage to speak of reducing the gap between rich and poor for the sake of a greater whole? Are we prepared to advocate broader prosperity that might lead to our own pockets being lighter? Are we prepared to learn the tricks of the new media world that, so far, the political right is so perplexingly more savvy at using than the liberal left? Are we prepared to say that we’ve not yet found the answers to all that ails us? Are we prepared to face the fact that in assuming that people would turn towards collective institutions (the EU, the UN, the Climate Change agreements etc) that we were wrong. Are we prepared to educate and teach, relentlessly the values we hold to those whom we raise?

And we need to love. There’s a whole lot of loving needed today and there’s a whole lot of loving going to be needed in the days ahead.

I happen to believe that love wins.

Even on days when it doesn’t feel like it.

That’s what makes me a liberal.

And I hear the call loud and clear to live the values I believe in.