Summary of our Discussion on Prayer

At our last meeting (Monday 3 October 2016) we discussed Bishop Shelby Spong’s view about prayer. He suggests that most of our understanding about prayer relates to a God who no longer exists. Prayer does not bring a theistic God to our aid (yet so many people believe this to be true). Prayer is not the attempt to change reality; it is about approaching reality in a dramatically different way.

Spong no longer understands prayer as the petition of ‘one in need to one who has the power to meet the need’. The Bible does tell us to ‘ask and you shall receive’ but is that what prayer is about? He receives letters asking him how to pray for a person who needs to be cured of serious illness. Does prayer change the world of cause and effect? There are spontaneous remissions but are they brought about by divine intervention? (Some people believe so).

Spong’s youngest daughter became an army helicopter attack pilot and served in battle zones. Spong did pray for his daughter through an act of love. The real question was did he understand what he was doing when he prayed?

He went to visit an old friend who was dying of pancreatic cancer and spent about three hours walking and talking about their shared lives over many years. Just before he left, he felt himself resorting to type; he shifting from friend to professional priest and offering to pray: stringing together a number of clichéd phrases, used on similar occasions. He made his way home feeling ill at ease. Which part of the visit was the prayer? The conversation or the pious words? He felt the conversation had enhanced and expanded both their lives but the traditional prayer had contracted them. He vowed never again to engage in the activity he had previously called prayer.

Prayer, the sharing of being, the sharing of life, the sharing of love, meant that prayer was more about being than doing.

Before prayer can be made real, our understanding of God, coupled with our understanding of how the world works, must be newly defined. Prayer must be drained of its manipulative magic. It must find expression in the reality of who we are, not in the details of what we do. His first wife, Joan, sadly died after many years battling with cancer. Because of his noted position he and Joan received a massive number of prayers. He wondered whether another person, in a less fortunate position, would be at a disadvantage when it came to God’s action. He reminded us of St Paul who enjoined us to pray without ceasing. Would the quantity of prayers be a factor in the outcome of people’s progress? (Some people obviously think so).

Spong prays daily. He brings before his eyes those that he loves, and thus into his awareness of the holy in which his life seems to be lived. He doesn’t expect miracles but he does expect to be made more whole, to be set free to share his life deeply with others, to be enabled to love beyond his boundaries and to watch the barriers that divided him from those once he avoided to be lowered. Prayer for Spong is the practice of the presence of God, the act of embracing transcendence and the conscious practice of sharing with another the gift of living, loving, and being. He believes prayer can make a real difference in our world.

Brian Parr

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