Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.
In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.
But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.
O blest communion, fellowship divine,Hymn: For all the Saints
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
As places of worship in the UK are asked to suspend gathered, in-person acts of worship, we’re seeing the rise of a phrase I’d hardly heard before 2020.
As in: “The church will be open for private prayer”.
I know what we mean by it. We mean that buildings are accessible for anyone to come and pray quietly. That the sanctuary and peace of these thin places is open to all who need it. And that the activity that takes place within will not be “co-ordinated”, or “synchronous”, or “organised”, or “gathered”. “Private Prayer” is a helpful shorthand for this.
But our language matters. And prayer is never, ever, private.
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. We are reminded of the faithfulness of so many people who have gone before us. We give thanks for their lives, and we bring our joy at all that we have shared with them.
But more than this, as we pray and worship on All Saints Day, as on any other day, our prayers and songs are drawn up into communion, “fellowship divine”, with a Community of Saints who span place and time: people just like you and me and people very different to you and me. Held together; united in our diversity.
To open our mouths in prayer is to join with the prayers of the saints who have gone before us, the saints who live alongside us, and the saints who will come after us. In prayer we are never alone. In prayer we are caught up in a great tidal swell which captures the fullness of the human condition and carries it on a wave, to God.
The liturgy of the Church of England, quoting Charles Wesley. speaks of a “mutual belonging” which “transcends death”.
One family, we dwell in him,Hymn: Let saints below in concert sing
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death.
To pray is to claim our place within this “mutual belonging”.
To pray is to join in the eternal song of the Saints.
To pray is to unite ourselves with one another – and with God.
And this is why prayer is never, ever, private.
This isn’t fastidious semantics. To speak of prayer as “private” is to collude in the damaging idea that faith is “personal”. Of course, faith is deeply personal! But faith in God is not about “me”. Faith is about how I live in relation to God, and to others, and to the natural world. If we remove faith from realm of things beyond us, if we make faith solely about “my private prayer”, then we miss the celebration of today: that with the Saints we are caught up in something far beyond ourselves: something more wonderful, more challenging, and more hope-filled than anything we can generate within our own hearts and souls.
Faith is not lived out alone, but together. And prayer is never “private”, but an expression of our togetherness.
And I don’t think we get this. Yet again I see Christian social media tearing into one another as we debate the rights and wrongs of suspending public worship. Our damning words to one another, our quickness to snipe, our failure to listen – are shameful.
And if we truly grasped our place, and our neighbour’s place, within the Fellowship of the Saints, our rhetoric would not be like this. Whether we are at home or in church, whether we are together or apart, whether we worship via Facebook or Songs of Praise, we are united as Saints.
I want to give the last word to the authors of the very-newly-published Kingdom Calling report:
Recent experiences of the suspension of public worship together in one place because of the Covid-19 pandemic have helped many to come to a renewed appreciation of the relationship between the church as festal assembly, the church in home and family, and the church in everyday discipleship. The first or the second of those may be denied us, for a short time or indefinitely, and, as already stated, without them something is lost. Even without them, though, we are still the church, still called to be sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s kingdom in our sharing together in the mission of Christ that reaches into all the world. If we are not willing to share in that mission, we distance ourselves from the reality of the church, as surely as if we cease to care about meeting together for public worship.Kingdom Calling, 52.
What we face in the next four weeks is not ‘second best’. As we live as people of faith, taking our place within a sanctified community that stretches before us and behind us and beyond us – as we pray at home and in church buildings and everywhere in between – as we endure the hardship of the coming weeks, we are still the church. Still present, still visible, and still together. And never, ever, to be found in “private” prayer.