by John Carr
On the basis of past discussions within SoFiA, I assume that most SoFers do not believe that intercessory prayer has any direct physical effect. Non-theists and Progressive Christians alike generally do not believe in a personal God who can or will intervene in the material world to make it rain, cure a diseased body or rescue people buried in an earthquake.
At a recent meeting of the SoFiA CBD Group, the topic was Belief in a Higher Power: Does it help us in time of trouble? The idea for this session came from reflecting on the 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous Program, which has been adopted and adapted by other counselling agencies. The original AA Step 2 said that the founders "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity", while Step 3 said they had "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood him". 1. Why, we asked, in this day and age, is it necessary to believe that we need the help of a Divine Power to overcome psychological or behavioural problems, especially in what are predominantly secular organisations? When we looked at the research, we found that NGO (nongovernment organisation) counselling agencies actually make very little use of the ’Higher Power’ clause. They might pay lip service to the notion, but the programs they conduct overwhelmingly employ mainstream psychological techniques like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. God quickly disappears from the scene. 2.
In the course of our discussion, we naturally widened the ambit to consider the continuing role of intercessory prayer in Christian liturgies. Across the spectrum — Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Baptist, Pentecostal, Mormon — intercessions still hold a central position. In some denominations, services may be given over entirely to prayer — formulaic, incantatory or extempore.
How do those SoFers who are church-goers deal with this? Do they simply ignore what is going on or pay close attention and suffer a heavy load of cognitive dissonance? And what about those who are in some kind of leadership position, where they may have to pray publicly? Good examples of ’godless prayer’ have been given by Bishop Spong and others, but how is it dealt with in everyday circumstances by our members? Two of those present at the meeting were prepared to report on their own experience as ’deputised intercessors’.
’Johannes’ is a member of a congregation where several volunteers are rostered to present the Intercessions during the Sunday Eucharist. Over a period of many years he has gradually modified what he says to keep faith with his changing beliefs. He still follows one of the basic models of ’the prayers of the people’ as set down in A Prayer Book for Australia. In order, there are: prayers for ’All Peoples’; ’The Church’; ’Those in Need’; and ’The Faithful Departed’. Each of the first three of these segments is in two parts — giving thanks for outcomes and for the people who are working to achieve them; and actual prayers of request.
When it comes to subjects, Johannes overwhelmingly chooses matters of social justice. Generic vices are denounced – violence, greed, arrogance, anger, sloth and so on – and virtues are praised – service, humility, compassion, patience and courage. Broad categories of people, especially leaders and workers, are named, such as politicians, clergy, carers, the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, the grieving, the isolated and, of course, the sick. In positive references, individual organisations and people may be named, though rarely in negative ones. Segments often end with a reminder that we are the ones who must work to achieve desired outcomes, just as we may be to blame for bad outcomes. Johannes sometimes refers to "God in us" and cites Jesus’ teaching as the touchstone, not Christian beliefs, ’God’s Plan’ or the need for a ’Saviour’ to atone for our sins. He never prays for better weather or cures for the sick.
Not surprisingly, Johannes finds this occasional duty fairly onerous. He composes all the prayers himself using the model referred to above. The other intercessors on the roster make considerable use of existing prayers, usually customising them for current circumstances. When Johannes has suggested that he should stand down from his role, members of the congregation urge him to continue. Even more orthodox intercessors whose prayers are radically different from his say they like them.
The second member who spoke at the meeting was ’Freya’, who serves as a volunteer hospital chaplain. The only patients she sees are ones who have expressed a desire to have a religious visitor and have specified her denomination.
As a Hospital Chaplain, Freya feels it is essential to interact with the patients in a caring, compassionate, supportive and non-judgemental way. While she does not believe in the material efficacy of intercessory prayer, she is acutely aware of how much value some patients place on it. Hence, she has had to balance the tension between these two competing views while at the same time being able to pray with the patients in an authentic way. In doing this, the prayers are focussed on issues of pastoral care, rather than simply asking for healing miracles.
When she is asked to pray, she does so by praying ’with’ the patient, often encouraging them to join in common prayers, such as The Lord’s Prayer, and to share what concerns them most about their current situation. She acknowledges that as humans, our bodies do not last forever, and that sickness is an inevitable part of the human condition, not a divine punishment for past wrongs. She prays for skill and compassion for the doctors, nurses and all hospital staff caring for the patient. She acknowledges the fears and worries of the patient, and prays for their peace of mind, and relaxation, encouraging them to mentally hand over their treatment and care to the hospital staff. She prays for strength, patience and peace of mind for the family of the patient (often with the family present when they are visiting). Hence, the visit with the patient is primarily a pastoral encounter, one where Freya responds to the specific emotional needs of each patient.
In both cases, it seems, the official ’pray-ers’ are acting in a pastoral role within a community of people who share many common values, experiences and practices. The prayers are an extension of everyday talk amongst friends — warm, thoughtful, reflective, reassuring. Though both invite reflection and self-assessment, the prayers in the liturgical context have a more challenging edge. Don’t wait for God to do it; you’ve got to do a bit yourself!