The Nation at Prayer
At the start of the week, the redtops were in full cry, cajoling the nation into praying for Capt. Tom who had just been admitted to hospital with COVID.
Now it has been some time since the media or the government had called the nation to pray. In the 10th century, King Ethelred called the nation to pray against the Danish Invasion. Churchill supported national prayers for victory during the 2nd World War. In my own church at Scarborough the recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid in 1871 was commemorated in a stained-glass window after Gladstone and the Archbishop of Canterbury commanded the nation to pray for his recovery.
However, such national calls to prayer are rare today. Even the current call to prayer by our archbishops’ is not getting much publicity and we have to ask why.
There is no doubt that, as a nation, we are coy about prayer. How often have we heard Prime Minsters say that the hearts of the nation go out to victims or, ‘’our thoughts and hopes are with you”. Prayer seems to be an embarrassment to people both outside and inside our churches and I think this is because prayers are not answered. On Tuesday Captain Tom died.
Is Prayer Valid?
As a Christian, this neglect of prayer worries me. There is a story about the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Archbishop George Carey becoming firm friends as a result of them both supporting Arsenal Football Club. At one critical match, they were both present when their favourite team was thrashed. A keen journalist from ‘The Sun’, observing these two religious leaders humiliated, wrote in the paper the next day that ‘here was ample proof that God is dead’. ‘Not at all’, shot back Rabbi Sacks in the letter column next day. ‘It shows that God is very much alive and supports Manchester United’!
There are things to be said about this. ‘The Sun’ journalist had a concept of God that was too small. He – like many of us – was working with a ‘slot-machine’ God. We push in a request and out comes our desired result. Now this approach is not wrong. We are told in The Lord’s Prayer to ask for daily bread but God is not a machine and doesn’t always deliver. There are different types of prayer but here my concern – and the concern of the nation – is intercessory prayer.
Perhaps the problem is to be found in regarding both God and the creation as mechanistic. Put the money in and out comes the answer. However, our understanding of creation has changed. Our ideas of both God and creation have been conditioned by old science. For three hundred years scientific thought has been heavily influenced by Newtonian physical laws: of gravity, of motion and so much more. Creation was seen as predictable; there was no room for God. He may have blown the whistle to set it off but was incapable of later intervention. Appeals for foul play went unheeded.
Since the 1920’s however, a greater openness in science and natural law has been recognized with mind-blowing theories such as quantum theory, cloud theory and chaos theory about which I know very little. But scientists tell us that although the laws of nature still obtain – night follows day, water freezes when cold – there is real flexibility at the micro level of life. Both exist together which will allow for surprise, intervention and reversal. The biblical record has plenty of examples of prayer being answered (such as Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18) but there are also examples of unanswered prayer, the most stark being that Jesus’ cup of suffering might be removed at the crucifixion (Mt.26.39). Among scientists today there is wide recognition of this open system of creation, allowing flexibility and intervention. I have witnessed myself the humility and astonishment of doctors who readily admit that this patient has recovered against all the odds.
So, it is time to recover our confidence in the power of prayer. But with it we need to learn some more about the contours of God’s kingdom where justice, mercy, sacrifice and generosity are some of the key ingredients. God will not act against himself, however hard we might pray. The analogy of parent and child is often helpful here. A child will get very confused if the parents keep changing their minds as they nurture their child. Bedtime is at 9pm…. but if the child has a special soccer match to watch, then an exception can occasionally be made.
God expects us to pray for all manner of things. Our prayers will influence our own behaviour certainly but if God’s nature is to see all things in the end united in him then he will continue to intervene as we have seen in the biblical record. Answers will come: they might be delayed or appear in the most surprising form. They may even take us by surprise in their response even before the prayer is uttered.
So we prayed for Captain Tom. His life was not prolonged in answer to our prayers on Monday but his family were already gathering round him and he died content in the knowledge that his NHS was appreciated and that he had been in the right place at the right time: a tonic for his country. Amen.