Extracts from an online discussion
in Signs of the Times No. 27 - Oct 2007
Towards the end of last year we set up an online Google group for members of the MCU's Council, to facilitate exchange of ideas and the conduct of business. For a few days in late April this year there was a lively discussion about intercessory prayer. Some edited and abridged extracts from it are given here - apologies to those whose contributions I have not used.
Participants have agreed to publication of their contributions. Please bear in mind that they came into being as fairly informal internet chat, not as scholarly papers.
Patrick Lewin: 'Australian Prime Minister John Howard has asked people there to pray for rain.' - BBCNews24 after 5.00 am on Saturday 21 April 2007.
Is he also asking the Aborigines to do their rain dance?
There followed some light-hearted reminiscing about the appointment in 1977 of Denis Howell as the Drought Minister, who was so successful that he almost immediately had to turn his attention to floods.
Richard Hall: I wholeheartedly agree that the Australian PM's call to prayer for rain is not something that thinking Christians can feel comfortable with. Would people agree, however, that what is wrong with his approach is not the idea that we should pray but the apparent assumption that we (the petitioners) can thereby get our hands on the levers of power and be (partly) instrumental in causing something to happen that would not otherwise happen?
Alan Race: What's the difference between praying for rain and praying in the Lord's Prayer 'Give us this day our daily bread'? Both express our dependency on 'God' in some ultimate sense. But is there more? Perhaps when we pray for bread it inspires us to work harder at feeding the world, otherwise prayer becomes magic. In other words, intercession is a reminder that all that we do is to be done in the knowledge of God's creative purpose for the world, so that without the prayer we lose the plot of 'God's creative purpose'? Just a thought.
I was ordained in the hot summer of 1976. During the ordinands' retreat, the Bishop of Hereford's solution was not prayer but to open his cupboard of beer stocks for our consumption whenever we felt a parched moment coming on.
David Storey: Should we explore the possibility that our mental vibrations which seek 'good weather' have not interfered with the rain falling in the south east of England in particular?
I feel sure that we should return to being thankful for rain, particularly where it encourages the farmers to grow beneficial crops.
Betsy Grey found herself unsettled by Alan Race's reference (above) to God's creative purpose. Alan elaborated:
Just to say 'God's creative purpose' is not interventionist or directive and can be quite compatible with God 'letting the world make itself' as even the orthodox Austin Farrer once said.
I have a 'creative purpose' for my children, even if it is only that they make good decisions for themselves and others. For them to know that, I like to think, sustains them, or at least maintains their relationship with me, even if they take not a blind bit of notice about what I think or hope for them. Earthly parenting is hard enough; pdivine parenting must be infinitely impossible to work out, as our discussions demonstrate.
Anthony Woollard: I wonder how much of the problem [about intercessory prayer] is related to our image of God - which by definition is always at best inadequate and at worst just plain wrong. I suspect all of us, myself included, still have deep inside us an image resembling Blake's Nobodaddy or Harry Williams' celestial puppet-master, who will do nice things if we ask him nicely but not otherwise.
I can conceive (intellectually) a much more panentheistic God, within whose realm our concern for people and situations, our intercession, is somehow taken up into That Which Is and affects it in ways we cannot imagine. What I am sure we can all agree on is that any form of prayer which is based on a 'God of the gaps' and an avoidance of human responsibility in a world which is enabled to 'make itself', is untenable.
Alan Race: But are we all happy saying the Lord's Prayer as anything other than the tribal song? Same issue as praying for rain.
Jean Mayland: I think that we are asking in the Lord's Prayer that we shall be helped to have our basic daily needs met. We are not asking God to fiddle with the isotherms.
Paul Badham: The petition in the Lords Prayer translated as a prayer for daily bread raises particular problems since no one has any real idea what it means. This is because the Greek word 'epiousion' only occurs in the Lord's prayer. There is no other usage of it in any Greek writing until long afterwards. 'Epiousion' came to be understood as 'daily' simply because it follows 'day by day'. After a couple of hundred years of people saying 'give us day by day our epiousion bread' the meaning of epiousion was elided with the meaning of day by day. It is most unlikely that this was its original meaning.
Origen and Jerome, two of the greatest linguists in the ancient world for whom Greek was a first language, suggested we break down the word to its components and see it as a combination of epi and ousia. This would then be 'above all substance' and in Latin versions for two thousand years it has been regarded as a petition for supersubstantial bread, and interpreted as 'spiritual bread' or the 'bread of heaven'.
Modern scholars think it might be a combination of epi with the future tense of the Greek word for coming. Then it would refer to the bread of the coming kingdom, the bread of the eschatological banquet. The international consultation on English texts agreed that the petition had nothing to do with the provision of our ordinary loaf each day but felt it would be too complex to try and change its normal translation.
John 6 provides a useful gloss since there Jesus urged us not to labour for the bread that perishes but for the bread of eternal life. A strong case can be made for saying that this petition in the Lord's prayer is not a petition for bread on a par with the Australian Prime Minister's petition to God for rain. It is rather a prayer for spiritual nourishing each day (as Origen and Jerome thought), or a prayer that we will participate in the heavenly eschatological banquet (whatever that may mean!) as the International Consultation on English Texts thought.
Jonathan Clatworthy: Well, I'm going to pray for rain, in full confidence that God will answer my prayers. It rained a few minutes ago and the clouds still look heavy. I think the ancients would have seen it as an issue between monotheism and polytheism. Polytheism invites intercession in two ways that monotheism doesn't. One is that the world has been made, not according to a supreme master plan so that everything works, but as a result of this god doing this and that god doing that. There are contradictions in the system, well expressed by the Greek tragedies. Meanwhile the gods are busy going about their own affairs; but if you can bend the ear of one of them, there's a fair chance they will recognize the problem. The other difference is that the gods don't have the well-being of humans at the top of their agenda, so you can't assume they will act in your interests. You have to nag them. Or sacrifice a goat or something.
Monotheism is different, and that's why the Old Testament is such a contrast with other ancient near eastern literature. There is only one god to plead with, and God set the system up so it works properly anyway. What's wrong is the result of human sin. What needs to be changed is what humans do, not what God does. If people go and live where there isn't enough rain, that's as silly as living in an earthquake zone. (And if we cause climate change, that's even sillier.)
A lot of Christian liturgy combines polytheism with monotheism in illogical combinations without realizing that the result is nonsense. The absurdity is hidden by the fact that we use our liturgies for other reasons these days - because they evoke a nostalgic air of eternal certainties, for instance. In our normal lives we are much more heavily influenced by modern secularism, which presupposes that humanity is, or ought to be, capable of doing whatever it wants, wherever it wants. The ancients were much more practical and logical about what they did, and didn't, expect their religious practices to achieve.