Call to Prayer or to Clap or ……?
Hang on, I thought. If I was not a person of faith, would this make any sense?
When the terrible death toll from Covid 19 reached 100,000 in the UK, it was understandable that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York were asked to speak on various media platforms as leaders of the national church. Indeed Justin Welby has had much to say during this pandemic, calling for co-operation amongst the nations of the world to ensure that all countries receive vaccine supplies. The archbishop has spoken up for poorly paid care staff, he himself has been a volunteer chaplain at a London hospital.
When that terrible death toll figure was reached, the two archbishops issued a letter to the nation, asking us all to pause and reflect on the enormity of the pandemic and the suffering it has caused. The letter was clear about the disproportionate affliction suffered by poorer and minority ethnic communities and those living with disabilities. All encouraging stuff.
Yet in a country which is both multi faith and largely secular the letter pulled no punches in regard to Christian faith, speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, and the hope of our sharing in that resurrection. In some ways a response might be ‘Well they would say that wouldn’t they?’ And of course they would. But in other ways my feeling is how connected to our nation is the established church? There is an assumption that the claims of the Christian faith will be received with thankfulness (or at worst equanimity) by a grieving population. I was particularly struck by this call to prayer: “Whether you’re someone of faith, or not, we invite you to call on God in prayer.”
Hang on, I thought. If I was not a person of faith, would this make any sense? Are the archbishops than asking a non-faith (therefore an atheist) person to pray to a God? Is this some kind of blind arrogance that of course we all know there is a God whether we believe in God or not? Would it not have been better to have asked the nation to reflect, to pause, to think, to remember, to clap and for those who have faith in a God who listens to prayer, then ok to pray.
This of course widens into the whole debate about what we mean by prayer. Its commonplace to offer prayers in all kinds of secular contexts – prayers at the start of the day in the Houses of Parliament for example. Perhaps one day we can have a more honest and open debate about what all this means, how does prayer work? The archbishops in their letter say: “We hope it is some consolation to know that the church prays for the life of our nation every day.” Is it? Has it made a difference? The archbishops then say, more revealingly: “Prayer is an expression of love”. So is that what they are really saying? Love one another? I guess we can all agree on that.
In such a public letter to the nation, as in all those public occasions when the cathedrals of our land host the big services – be it memorials, celebrations, state occasions – there is a nodding acceptance to the claims of religion. We let the God language flow over us. But rarely is there any serious public debate about religious belief within the Church. The tough theological questions are just not there and we continue with the spectacle of a national church calling a nation to prayer, irrespective of what that means to millions of its citizens.
The full letter can be read here: