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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

That Election Prayer!

Before the last general election two years ago I wrote a blog about how we might pray in the days before we cast our vote. I recycled it recently and it got a few appreciative nods. Enough said, I thought.
But then I saw the official prayer issued by the Church of England for this 2019 election. Here it is.

God of grace and truth,
send your Spirit to guide us
as we discover your will for our country.
Help us to discuss the issues before us
with courtesy, truth and mutual respect,
and grant that all who stand for parliament
will seek to serve the common good,
through him who came not to be served but to serve,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Oh dear!

Yes, I have to say that it left me feeling decidedly uncomfortable, and I admit, embarrassed. Judging by responses on social media, I'm not alone. Everyone endorses the sentiments about courtesy, truth and mutual respect. We all want those who are standing for parliament to seek to serve the common good (but why seek to? - such a weak, padding kind of phrase when what we're longing for are men and women who will go beyond "seeking" actually to embrace "serving" without fear or favour). And I'd have thought we would want to focus our prayer specifically on those who are elected to parliament rather than simply standing. But let's not be pedantic when there's a bigger matter at stake.
It's the opening petition that's the trouble. Send your Spirit to guide us as we discover your will for our country. I don't think this will do, either as prayer or as theology. Which is saying the same thing. Lex orandi, lex credendi: as we believe, so we pray; and as we pray, so our belief is formed and shaped. Doctrine, liturgy and spirituality are not separate from one another. They are a single entity that expresses our response to the God whom we worship and serve. I'm saying that this and every liturgical text not only tells us something about how we pray. It's a mirror that unmasks and reflects back to us what we truly believe, in this case about God's will and purpose for us mortals.
Or at any rate, us mortals who make up the United Kingdom. This Church of England prayer seems to put into our minds and mouths the idea that whatever the outcome of the election, it will prove to have been God's will. This is what we are asking the Spirit to help us discover, as if having said our prayers, it's simply a matter of unwrapping an early Christmas present on Friday the Thirteenth to find out what we've been given.
Shouldn't we have learned by now that it's a dangerous doctrine to elide what actually happens in life with God's will and purpose? The seventeenth century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz may have believed that ours is the best of all possible worlds (among other reasons because a world that exists at all is arguably better than one that doesn't). Alexander Pope put it into verse.
All nature is but art unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT".
Voltaire was at first a keen disciple of this kind of optimism. But he had to learn through his disappointments in life that it most definitely isn't the case that whatever is, is right. In 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon destroyed the city and killed tens of thousands of innocent people. That terrible catastrophe put an end to his innocence. It gave him a feeling for tragedy. "If Pope (the poet) had been at Lisbon, would he have dared to affirm that all is well?" Candide is his witty demolition of optimism as a doctrine that does justice to the way things are. It doesn't. It's hopelessly simplistic. And for that reason, perilous.
I think the Church of England's prayer falls squarely into the optimistic trap of believing that whatever is (whatever the result of the election), is right. It seems to believe that the election outcome is the answer to the question we put when we invoke the Spirit to help us discover your will for our country. Job done. Prayer answered. The mystery of providence grasped and understood!
But what if providence were infinitely more inscrutable than this way of praying seems to affirm?
How we understand "God's will" in relation to the complexities, ambiguities and baffling realities of life, particularly to pain and suffering, is called theodicy. Some of the greatest minds of the Bible gave themselves to exploring it, most famously the author of the Book of Job. That book concludes that there is no conclusion, no answer or formula that will "explain" the mystery of providence and the reality of suffering. Events are facts on the ground, but they don't tell us about God's purpose. This was the problem Voltaire had to face when the wake-up call from Lisbon overturned his optimistic view of the world. The outcome of the election will be a fact by Friday, but whether we think it's a good or bad result is in no way connected with "God's will for our country". That's just a lazy optimistic assumption. Politicians (and clergy?) may like the convenient idea that whatever is, is right. But as an intelligent account of the world and of human life, it won't do.

So what can we say about the election and God's providence? And how should we pray about it?
Kierkegaard said that life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards. This is the only way we can begin to make sense of how God is among us. Not by looking back at events and pronouncing a verdict ("yes, that must have been his will!") but by glimpsing how God is present in the ebbs and flows of human history and in the stories of personal life. How we try to respond when someone is terminally ill or is killed in a road accident can help us here. Intelligent faith doesn't say, never says, "Oh, it must be God's will" (whatever is, is right!). Instead, it tentatively asks where God's presence might be discerned in the very midst of a person's suffering, suggest how God is among us not as presiding over pain but as its victim. Isn't this what the passion narrative teaches us?
So yes, there are election outcomes I would prefer to see this week, and outcomes I'd find it hard to welcome. I'd go further and suggest that some of those outcomes are closer than others to my own vision of society, informed by my Christian faith. But note the pronoun! It's a personal perception. Whether it's held by many or few doesn't make it "the will of God". I'm not even sure we can confidently speak about the will of the nation in these febrile times, let alone the will of the Almighty.
Therefore, faced with the inscrutable mystery of divine providence, I'd prefer to say nothing about God's will, and not speculate about things I can't possibly know or even guess at. "Before that of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent" said the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in one of the most important sayings of our time. To say nothing, that is, other than to urge us all to continue in the spiritual task of discerning the signs of the times and responding as intelligently as we can to whatever the present moment suggests we must do next. That can begin to happen when theology and prayer learn how to be humble, cultivate reticence, discover how not to resort to words when the silence of not knowing would be the better, wiser, more creative response.
I think this could help faith gain respect in an era when we are so much more aware of the complexity of things than our forebears. We must wean ourselves off the easy talk about "the will of God" and the old religious formula and its modern equivalents, whatever is, is right. That kind of God-talk may bring comfort in the short-term. But it won't sustain us for long, because it's not only manifestly false to our reading of events, but as we've seen in our own times, utterly discredited. It's religion-lite with an untroubled conscience, not the tough, demanding Christianity we learn from the New Testament that requires us to wrestle with the dilemmas of believing. The assumption that mortals can ever know God's will in any ultimate sense shouldn't even be hinted at in the way we pray.

And if we're ever tempted back into naive spiritual optimism, all we need to do is to whisper a word or two that symbolises what we can't know and ought not to speculate about in terms of the providence of God. We simply have to name catastrophe or evil for what they are to put paid to idle theorizing. The Lisbon Earthquake. Auschwitz. All cruelty, slavery and abuse. Or when death is untimely and wrong as it so often is. And when the pain won't go away. Or when a relationship is irretrievably fractured. Or simply when events bewilder us, when the paper the book of providence is written on seems darker than the words themselves and we can't make head or tail of them.
Why do we pray? Because we believe that God cares about the world, about nations and peoples, about every human life. It's an act of trust in our Creator and the grace and truth we recognise in him. By praying, we defy despair and affirm that we do not lose heart, whatever the circumstances. Who can say what effect this great project of hope may have? But we do know for sure how it affects us in our best moments, even if we often seem to be doing little more than holding other people in our hearts. That "work" of prayer, for me, is to do a very great deal! Prayer deepens our feeling for others, aligns our care and compassion with God's. It makes us open to new possibilities, helps shape our aspirations, commits us to act in the name of all that is right and good and so point to the grace and truth that are already among us. In the end all prayer is an act of love - for our neighbour as well as God.

Which is why we must pray this week. If we didn't love our nation and our fellow-citizens, why would we bother praying for them? Here’s an excellent prayer produced by the Methodist Church that does it beautifully.

And  here  once again is the election prayer I commended in my earlier blog. It's not a perfect text. But at least I can say for it that I'd be content to say Amen at the end if I heard it read in church. Which is more than I'm able to do with the C of E's latest offering. Sorry! 


  1. Really helpful Michael, thank you!

  2. Very pertinent comments. I am not British and therefore only an interested observer but I must agree that the prayer suggested by thdd Church of England is trite and naive as, I must say, are so many of the utterences from our established church. I must make one comment though and that's regarding your phrase "Because we believe that God cares about the world, about nations and peoples, about every human life." Might I dare to suggest the the creator Spirit that we call God cares about much more of this magnificent world than "...every human life".my understanding and experience is that God's care extends to every and all life, human or otherwise. But very well said. Thank you.

  3. I've just read this, Michael, after reading Rowan William's piece in the New Statesman, where he outlines his wish for integrity and professionalism in politicians with characteristic insight, rigour and humanity. You both seem to be two 'lone' voices in the vast ocean of silence from the national leadership of the Church.

    Of course, the official CofE prayer, with its limited focus on God's will 'for our country' is all of a piece with the myopic, a-political obsession with institutional survival that has become the 'mission' of the National Church. Lex orandi lex credendi indeed!

  4. I must confess, I didn't see the problem at first because I interpreted:

    send your Spirit to guide us
    as we discover your will for our country.

    as meaning, 'send your spirit to guide us as we consider and debate what your will for our country is [so that we can then cast our vote according to that will]'.

    That is, the prayer is for God to help us discover how to cast our votes according to His will, rather than for us to dicsover His will in the outcome of the election.

    I agree your interpretation is perfectly reasonable, and problematic, but I think mine is plausible too; it would have been nice if it was less ambiguous.

  5. Just returned from a visit to Cumbria - not a single Labour M P in the entire county - Can you believe it?