By Andrew Brown
All over Britain, people are praying for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, after he was admitted into the intensive care unit of St Thomas’s Hospital, London, last night. Prayer is something to which millions of people turn in times of need.
A recent Pew Research survey found that more than half of US adults have prayed for an end to the pandemic, among them more than a third of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular”.
But this simple statistic conceals an enormous variety of behaviour. It is possible to say the word of a prayer without giving any thought to their meaning. Do the millions who sing God Save the Queen realise that the words, written out, form one long prayer? It is just as true that an awful lot of despairing or angry swearing might also be understood as heartfelt prayer.
When people pray for health for others, do they really expect their prayers to be answered, or are they hoping for a more inward adjustment to reality?
Prayer can mean both public theatrical performances and a deeply private intimacy with an almighty God, “unto whom all hearts are open and all desires known”. At one extreme are the shamanic gibberings of the prosperity gospeller Kenneth Copeland, seen on YouTube commanding the virus to disappear.
At the other are the words of Abi, a Catholic friend: “I suspect it’s impossible to talk about prayer without becoming, either consciously or unconsciously very personal. It’s like marriage: the more you hear someone talk about marriage, the more you understand their own relationships.
“What I’m doing with prayer is trying to place my safety and that of the world in the hands of God. That means a lot of trying to let go of even the sense of control that praying for events or outcomes can give a person. I’ll pray for people, in the Quaker sense of holding them in the light, drawing their wonderfulness to the Lord’s attention. I use the rosary to kind of organise that sometimes.”
Rachel, a teacher whose husband is an Anglican priest, says it is hard to explain “holding” others who are struggling or suffering. “I do it in the hope that they would somehow feel more at peace, knowing that they’re being prayed for. She had been, she says, a passionate charismatic as a teenager. She would spend hours praying for such things as the downfall of the Berlin Wall and a few months before it actually fell, “I did have a picture once of the wall, which I took to be the hand of God, coming down and crushing it . . . why do I no longer pray that?” she added, in a tone of slight bewilderment.
Christopher Landau, once the religious affairs correspondent of the BBC World Service, and now an Anglican chaplain in Oxford, has moved in the opposite direction. He started to pray in tongues while following an Anglican service on his laptop alone in a hotel room in China. “My own sense of the proximity of the divine and all of the mystery entailed in that, was certainly heightened and deepened by that experience.”
For him the charismatic belief in the immediate and constant presence of God who can and should be talked to about everything offers a middle way between two errors: “The exciting, whizz bang, aspect of being a charismatic is that you get to be an agent of the advance of the Kingdom of God, which also offers a more coherent account of the presence of suffering and even evil, compared to either believing that God’s in total control of the world and we just need to read our Bibles more, or that God is so absent and mysterious that prayer might just seem to waft in his direction, but not achieve anything. For me a lively theology of the Holy Spirit gives people a sense that by praying, one can draw closer to the source of inspiration, and that by praying we can advance this work called the Kingdom.”
Yet “advancing the work of the Kingdom” is a wonderfully baggy phrase that need not entail miracles on demand. It can mean no more than acquiring the strength to go on with tasks that can often seem impossible.
Fred Drummond, the prayer director of the Evangelical Alliance, is another who points out how many things prayer can be used for: “I guess trying to work out why people are praying at home is a bit like trying to work out why people sing in the bath. There are lots of reasons: some always sing, some are thinking singing is good for them, for others they maybe sing occasionally, or it lifts their spirits.”
Though this may sound like a trivialisation, I believe it is not. Like singing, prayer is something both personal and collective, something that can be pure self-expression or pure communication, sometimes both at once. And it may be that one of the most lasting changes that the coronavirus will have brought about with English Christianity is to change the balance between public and private prayer so that people who have been performing for their neighbours now find themselves alone, considering who might really be listening.