It concerns the Church of England's new prayer for the referendum, issued yesterday. Before I say any more, here is the text.
God of truth, give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum with honesty and openness. Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion and discernment to those who vote, that our nation may prosper and that with all the peoples of Europe we may work for peace and the common good; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
I think you will agree that it is scrupulously careful to avoid taking sides. It isn't claiming, as prayers sometimes do especially in times of conflict, that God would really rather prefer one outcome more than the other. It isn't even hinting at that. What it asks for is a debate based on integrity and the willingness to think honestly, openly and carefully. It looks for a generous attitude in this process. This presumably means being generous towards people who differ from us, not impugning their integrity or their intelligence. But in a larger sense, "generosity" also means having in our minds the welfare of everyone involved in this decision, "all the peoples of Europe" as well as our own nation, summed up by the words "peace and the common good".
What's going on when we pray in this kind of way? I think the key word is "discernment". It's a word with a long history in the Jewish and Christian vocabulary. Discernment is what is needed when prophets give you different advice, says the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Jeremiah there's a classic case of this when the Jewish people are taken into exile in Babylon. Most of the prophets are confident that it will all end very soon because God will never allow his temple to be destroyed - a bit like those who predicted in 1914 that the Great War would be over by Christmas. But Jeremiah, in a famous run-in with one of his opponents (chapter 28), foretells that the Babylonians are here to stay. Exile will be long and difficult. The Jewish community had better adjust and learn what this new situation will call for. How could you know who was right?
Discernment, then, is about testing the evidence, examining the logic, weighing things up, coming to a judgment not on the basis of dogmatic formulae but rather the wisdom borne of the experience of how God is at work in human life. It was a gift much prized by the desert monks early in the Christian era as they developed the arts of spiritual guidance. You will never be a wise soul-friend to other people, they said, without the capacity for deep insight into the complexities of human existence. But it's also a matter not only of what is being tested but who. In other words, who are the mentors we have come to trust? What's their history of being credible and wise? What is their case based on? What kind of company do they keep? In all these ways, the community of faith in both Old and New Testaments tries to distinguish between the conflicting voices that are all claiming to know the truth.
So I'm puzzled that a Tory MP, Peter Bone, sees this prayer as a sign of some sinister hidden agenda. He is quoted as saying it is "outrageous" to suggest that the Almighty would disapprove of Leave supporters. "It is extraordinary that they are doing a prayer. Project Fear has really stepped it up now.... As a churchgoer I am not going to be praying about this." Not going to be praying? As if God isn't interested in our nation's future or the peoples of Europe and the welfare of all human beings? On the contrary. "To prayers! To prayers!" cry the mariners at the opening of The Tempest. As indeed they should, and we should.
In the spirit of the prayer let's be "generous" and say simply that neither Mr Bone nor the Daily Mail seem to have had a good day. As pretty well all people of faith agree, it's not a question of whether it's right or wrong to pray about the big political issues of the day. It's more a question of how. The Church of England has been wise not to use the text of a prayer to lead its members into forming an opinion in a particular way and, in effect, instruct them how to vote. Liturgy should be inclusive, not divisive. We should be able to pray together for the discernment we all need, not only on 23 June but now as the debate is hotting up.
But let me offer an important aside. This is not to say that the Church shouldn't take a view about this or any other matter of public concern. Bishop David Hamid, a suffragan bishop in Europe, is quoted in today's Guardian: "The C of E is a national church and has to serve all people of the nation regardless of their political orientation. The church has to be seen as neutral." The premise is right but not, I think, the conclusion. It's perfectly possible to state a position without binding members to follow it either in the way they vote or the way they pray. The Church of Scotland has done precisely that in affirming that it believes the UK should remain in the EU, a position it has held for many years. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, the Primus of Scotland, the Archbishop of Wales and other Christian leaders have all publicly spoken in support. But I doubt that any of them are praying that God will triumphantly vindicate Remainers, or confound the politics and frustrate the knavish tricks of those wicked Brexiters (an allusion to a little-sung second verse of the National Anthem in case you wondered).
The Church of England is well-practised at this. It has taken an unambiguous view about the ordination of women but has been at pains for decades not to exclude those who differ. However, in the prayers issued before the relevant votes in General Synod, you will not find that sides were taken. You will find the same language of wisdom and discernment which is the proper register for prayer. So be reassured. We can safely pray together in the run-up to the referendum. Whatever our beliefs about the EU, we can all ask for the same thing with a sincere heart and true faith: that we may be wise and generous in our discernment and hold in our hearts the common good of all our peoples in this nation, Europe and the entire world.
God has given us human beings the capacity to think and make judgments. He has put a conscience within us. We have the tools to nurture intelligence and act out of wisdom. So it's a badly formed question to ask as one Twitter post did today, "Whose side is God on?" It's our call as a nation. We are asked to make a decision in June that will shape the history of our nation and continent for generations to come. It's an awesome responsibility. God will not cast a vote. He trusts us to act out of generosity, for sake of the common good as the prayer asks. That's why we need to pray for discernment within our larger prayer that God's kingdom may come and his will "be done on earth as in heaven".