Thursday, 20 April 2017

Praying for the Election

I've posted this prayer today. As a person of faith, I believe that everything we human beings do, we do before God. So it's important that we pray for the forthcoming general election. Let me try to explain what I mean - and what I don't mean when I say this.

I know that the Church of England has also issued a prayer today. It's fine as far as it goes. It asks that we the electorate may have wisdom at election time, be protected from despair, cynicism and false utopianism, and help make politics "a noble calling that serves the common good of all". I especially like that last bit. And I like the appeal to integrity as we cast our vote. G. K. Chesterton once said that the problem with elections was not that only half the electorate voted, but that only half the elector voted: half-heartedly, without real conviction, not really believing that elections make a difference.

But we make our prayers too narrow by false limits of our own (apologies to Father Faber for misquoting his famous hymn). We should be more ambitious as we lay the issues of this election before God. It's the outcome that matters, not simply the process that leads up to it. And while we mustn't turn prayer into a kind of spiritual manipulation motivated by party politics, I think we can agree that we should crave leaders who are principled, embody healthy values and who will have the courage to make decisions that will put them into practice. Hence my use of words like integrity, courage, compassion, vision, truth, justice, the love of neighbour and the healing of division in our nation - surely a top priority for everyone in public life right now. The Seven Gifts of the Spirit that are set out in the messianic portrait painted in Isaiah 11 might be a good place to begin exploring what we look for in our leaders: this was the text in my mind when I alluded in the prayer to "the Spirit of understanding".

No doubt we won't all agree about what these values and virtues mean in practice. But I believe that to pray with integrity about the kind of nation we want to be also commits us to debating with integrity during the election campaign. The lack of it was what many of us lamented during the EU referendum campaign. To descend to empty slogans (or, to quote Chesterton again, the "easy speeches that comfort cruel men") is to devalue what we mean by democracy. An election debate means listening carefully, evaluating evidence, discerning good arguments from bad, and not personalising matters of principle. (So please let's stop referring to Theresa May as "the vicar's daughter" - she deserves to be heard in her own right as a responsible adult woman, not someone who is still being defined by her father, however good a priest he no doubt was.)

Above all we need to be committed seekers after truth. A good election is one where we don't cling to old political tribalisms, some of which have clearly had their day. On the contrary, we need to take the trouble to think for ourselves as grown-ups who are privileged, in a way not open to everyone in our world, to be able to take part in a democratic election. To listen, to think and to debate in this respectful way is, I want to say, an act of discernment. It asks the question, where might the voice of wisdom and truth be detected amid the babble of human voices that clamour for our attention? Where might we even hear the voice of God? Discernment and prayer are close relatives.

I'm not saying it's easy. Discernment never is. The word diakrisis literally means "making a judgment", coming to a mind. The weighing of arguments, the ability to place them in a larger context, the capacity to inquire what theological or ethical issues might be at stake all demands wisdom, effort and good deal of perseverance. But if we care about our nation and the human family of which we are part - if indeed, we are not only good citizens of the UK but also, in the best sense, citizens of the world (sorry, Mrs May!), then discernment is precisely what we are called to practice in the next few weeks. Amid the clamour of earthquake, wind and fire, we need to listen out for the still small voice. Not just for our own sake, the nation's sake or the world's sake, but for God's sake too.

This is where prayer comes in. If we are people who pray, our concerns will already be engaged towards those who represent us in Parliament and the other institutions of which we are part. But now, as we get ready to make political choices that will have far-reaching consequences, it's especially a time to focus on our common life, and pray for wise and principled leaders who will cherish just, compassionate and humane values. We need to pray for the destiny of our nation as it searches for its place in a changing world order.

Prayer isn't (or shouldn't be) a way of getting God to orchestrate events our way. Nor is it a binary spiritual exercise ("answered" or "not answered"). It's more subtle than that. I believe it is a genuine and heartfelt desire to bring the affairs of the nation into the orbit of God's love and care, to acknowledge that all life is dependent on him, and that we are ultimately accountable to him as our Judge. It is a joyful affirmation that out of his love for the world, God is passionately concerned for the welfare of all peoples. Self-interest doesn't come into it - or, shall we say, ought to become as enlightened as possible by our love of God and our neighbour. Perhaps the best prayers are those that spring not from desperation but from gratitude and that are built on the central petition of the Lord's Prayer, "your kingdom come".

Even if you are not a religious person who habitually prays, maybe you could still think about the forthcoming election in this kind of way? Can we agree to practise "mindfulness" together over the next few weeks and try to raise the tone of the debate? Maybe we can make common cause with everyone of good will who wants to play a part in shaping a healthy ecology of mind and heart during the campaign? Perhaps we can encourage one another to entertain the idea of a more generous political discourse that rises above tired, simplistic formulae and genuinely tries to listen and understand?

There are two direct benefits of thinking about and praying for the election in the way I've suggested. The first is to revitalise our imagination about what is possible, what our society could become. The other is to help us learn the lesson of humility. Our politics could really do with generous helpings of both.


  1. We can only hope that both Politicians and Electors heed the words of your prayer. The signs so far are of a combative election campaign, with allegations from all sides and rumours of coalitions and unofficial coalitions to keep the Tories out of power.

    I am all in favour of a coalition that takes the wider interest of the country and our neigbbours in Europe into consideration, but I am not seeing much about protection of the environment, care for the stranger within and without our borders and for the poor and vulnerable. Mr Corbyn argues for a fairer society, but is paid for by interest groups, who actually want to increase the power and influence of their own interest, not that of the greater majority of the country. The Liberal Democrats are living in their cloud of unknowing, Brexit totally dominating their campaign, again in the interests of a minority. The SNP are betraying a narrow nationalistic focus with everything focused on their Independence, and no worry about the huge numbers who voted against it and them in the last referendum. The Greens are trying hard to be the party of choice and are prepared to work with anyone who will commit to their agenda, which is a good thing, but they might regret getting into bed with labour in particular - fortunately, so far, that doesn't appear to be an option.

    Where are the honest, open politicians, fighting for the greater good - they seem to be silenced by the noise of the party machines. Perhaps independent candidates will get in here and there, but their influence in parliament will be little, unless they coooperate with others.

    I am a cynic about politics and while I acknowledge there are many good, hardworking MP's, many of them have their hands tied as they are dependent upon the party machine for funding and support and in a duty of obedience to the party line, once elected.

  2. Spirit of David Jenkins23 April 2017 at 08:22

    Is there any chance you could send this excellent reflection to the current Incumbent at Lambeth Palace? Having declared that he 'will not be commenting on the election' this may just remind him that he - and the C of E more generally - is there to serve the people of England; not just those who pitch up in a particular kind of church every Sunday. Mrs Thatcher must be cheering from the grave. At last, a prelate who only comments on 'spiritual' things. Kyrie eleison.

  3. Michael, I am so glad you didn't retire your blog when you left Durham. I always enjoyed hearing you speak live. And this is great. Prayer's being a binary exercise. Or rather, not! Brilliant. I suspect this election will turn out exactly as our "vicar's daughter" intends. She will get a bigger majority and a re-start of the clock for her reign. Labour just doesn't cut it as a feasible opposition, and everyone discounts the Lib. Dems. A pity, since it seems to me that spending a bit more than the Tories, and taxing a bit less than Labour is a good and sensible position to take up! And I'm afraid that Mr. Farron's explicitly religious views won't cut it. Anyway, thanks for this. I do think Justin should speak out. Pity.

  4. Thanks for these comments. I appreciate thoughtful online debate about this and so much else, and am glad that in a modest way, this blog can still contribute to it.