Every week around 6000 or more adults take on the role of godparent to a child baptised in the…
“It’s the theology, stupid” is the title of Alister McGrath’s very helpful Church Times review of the Church of England’s discussion document on clergy training “Resourcing Ministerial Education” (RME). I believe strongly that we must cultivate a stronger leadership culture in senior clergy, which is the focus of the earlier Green Report, and which should not in my view be confused with this separate one. But I do agree with McGrath that congregations, parishes and people need clergy who know their Bibles and can connect them theologically with their lives. I’m not sure he is right to see RME as promoting a corporate, institutional view of Church, but he is spot on in sounding the alarm at its proposals to delegate how training is financed to local dioceses, and very likely to disconnect training from residential and university-based theological education. It’s the theology, stupid.
Bishop Steven Croft chaired the RME report group and responded to its critics in this blog this week. Reading his response, I am encouraged by the reminder of the goal of an increase in 50% in vocations (just as big a task as financing them). But I am still left asking for the group to assure us that increased quantity will not mean diluted theological quality. As mixed-mode training still appears to be the favoured way to finance an increase in ordinations, this dilution is surely inevitable, if the proportion of ordinands training residentially (and in seminaries linked to university faculties) falls as the number overall rises.
Attending a preaching conference this week I am forcefully struck by the value of rigorous theological education (evident in the humble work of so many attending with me) to give us high expectations of one another as clergy, and to train us not to think “that was it” but to be lifelong theological and homiletical learners. This “never stop learning” attitude is epitomised by the title of the handout given this morning by an eminent but humble Australian preacher and theologian who retired after 40 years of ministry, but continues to preach and train preachers:
“Still learning to preach, and still learning to teach others to preach”.
Whilst there is no “how to” for prayer which does justice to its depth and breadth, the “Lord’s Prayer” of Jesus, the Psalms, and the great prayers of others, are our best guide. A brief glance at these shows that healthy prayer holds three balancing truths in tension:
Conversation AND encounter
The writer of Psalm 1, which introduces the whole book of 150 Psalms, urges us to slow down and meditate – not to empty our minds, but to meditate on “his law day and night” and then respond. The slow reading of a passage or word of Scripture allows the truths God reveals there to inspire our praise, confession or intercession. This conversation with God enriches spiritual life enormously for anyone who takes the time (which may be a few minutes a day) to do it.
But prayer is also encounter – when we pray we are neither mouthing empty words which bounce off the ceiling, nor going through the motion of being pious. We are in the presence of God. This is apparent in the prayer life of Jesus in the gospels, in his use of “Father” addressing God. But it is also apparent in the wonderful prayers of Paul, about which DA Carson writes so helpfully in his book “A Call to Spiritual Reformation“. “For this reason” Paul says in Ephesians 3, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth derives its name”. To pray is to stand, or to kneel, in the presence of God, before saints and angels, beside the Son, filled with the Spirit.
Awe AND intimacy
The Lord’s prayer combines both.
First – I suspect intentionally – it teaches us to pray “hallowed be your name” before we pray “give us today our daily bread”. Jesus is teaching us a vital spiritual lesson. If we rush into asking about the things which make us anxious, we miss the peace and joy which come from praise and gratitude. How can the God who is so mighty and merciful not give us also all that we need?
CS Lewis in his “Reflections on the Psalms” (in a chapter entitled “A Word About Praising”) points out that praising God (like praising a beautiful sunset or piece of music) comes naturally as part of the delight in Him. “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation”.
Second, intimacy. “Forgive us our sins”, continues Jesus. Prayer is the privilege of face-to-face encounter, so to speak, with God through his grace in Christ. Because of our sins, we would be prevented from drawing near, but the death of Christ our sacrifice has opened the way and removed the barrier. “Let us then draw near to God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). Intimacy with God through knowing our sins forgiven is as essential as praise.
Discipline AND delight
One of the traditions of the Church is daily prayer (also called the Office). At its simplest it is the habit of spending a few minutes morning, noon and night in reading the Scriptures and in responsive prayers of praise, confession and intercession. It can become a dry formality – my experience at theological college was just that. Yet where evangelical piety has reduced in the last century to the “quiet time” defined as “read the Bible as just an intellectual exercise, and bring a list of prayer needs”, it might refresh us all through including reflection on Scripture which leads to praise and confession. At its best it trains us to encounter God through His Word and respond in praise, confession and intercession. As Tim Keller notes in the final chapter of “Prayer”, entitled “Daily Prayer”, both Luther and Calvin encouraged Christians to learn private prayer from public prayer with others, whether in midweek “services” or groups of believers gathered informally.
A second cornerstone of Anglican worship is the Collects written by Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury under three Tudor monarchs and architect of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer). These prayers are widely regarded as some of the most Biblical and well-constructed in existence. The pattern they follow (noted by Tim Keller in chapter 12 of his book) is both elegant and deeply prayerful:
expressing our need
requesting His help
affirming His glory.
The best are near-perfect expressions of faith in prayer. An example follows at the end.
Other godly Christians have written great prayers which deepen our faith. Those of Augustine (“Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”), Francis of Assisi (“Master, grant that I may never seek so much as to be understood as to understand”), and Richard of Chichester (“to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly”) are good examples, and many more are found in pocket collections like this one.
But at the same time prayer is a delight. We do not need to limit prayer to set times of the day or words of others, or feel that we can pray only at our bedside, and not at the kitchen table or on the commute to work. Discipline deepens us, but delight reminds us that through grace heaven is accessible at any moment. There may be times when prayer is dutiful, but as our faith deepens we will find that God becomes more and more beautiful to us, and prayer becomes more and more a delight in which we long to spend all our days.
Prayer – Collect for Easter Day (Cranmer) (now for “Fifth Sunday of Easter”, Common Worship)
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help
we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
It was striking to see the number of senior academics, many of them also clergy, raising concerns about the restructuring (led by refinancing) of future theological education, potentially taking it out of university links. The response included a senior resignation from the review group and an open letter to the Church Times. We need to pray for General Synod to prioritise the quality of training over financial restructuring. Surely we do not want to withdraw theology in the Church of England from quality academic interaction, even if mixed-mode training works for some.
In the reverse direction (secular agendas against public faith in academia) Julian Rivers of Bristol University and Jubilee Centre argues that we need a careful definition of “secular” in universities or the title of these academic/research establishments (as places of universal and broad education) becomes meaningless. Worth a read for all supporters of arts and humanities.
I was magnetised by and gained a love of expository preaching from DM Lloyd-Jones, reading his sermons as a student 25 years ago. I am excited to see a new film about him “Logic on Fire” (his famous definition of preaching) is out . If you find out when it can be seen in the UK, I and lots of others would like to hear!
GE2015: Those excellent people at Jubilee Centre are also encouraging us to think and pray carefully about what we want from our politicians. This short article from Guy Brandon makes the case for seeking the common good through faith – echoes of the superb but maligned recent Bishops’ letter.
A good summary from Krish Kandiah of how the Church is growing today, even if Christians are “ridiculously divided” and secularism is strong in Europe and North America.
Although Linda Woodhead continues to criticise the Green Report, I have a feeling most level-headed church leaders will recognise that future ministry, as in the past, needs to be BOTH pastoral AND managerial, or (better, using Eugene Peterson’s phrase which I commented on at a conference recently) reacting AND initiating. We need prayerful, teaching and missionary bishops, but we also need bishops who “get” such things as vision, teambuilding, motivating others, and change management.
The recent Church Commissioner’s report “Anecdote to Evidence” has produced much of the evidence referred to in response to Woodhead, and it is wide and deep. It was great this week to receive an early copy of the new church growth “tool” “From Evidence to Action” (happily acronymised to FETA) which from first sight looks great, and can be accessed here.
Pope Francis recently spoke up for persecuted Christians as being “invisible” to the media, and Justin Welby gave prayerful support to the Anglican church in Lahore attacked by bombing last week. Pray for those persecuted and persecuting.
In his excellent new book “Prayer”, Tim Keller (chapter 7) summarises John Calvin’s four “rules” of prayer. This inspired me to read the original chapter on prayer in the great French reformer’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, and I have not been disappointed. Calvin’s guidance is deep and heartwarming.
Calvin starts with the great question people ask “Why do we need to pray to God at all?” “Does he not know what our difficulties are, and what we need, until aroused by the sound of our voice?”
He replies that “those who argue thus forget the end for which our Lord taught us to pray. it was not so much for his sake as for ours…That our heart may be enflamed with love for and trust in him…that wrong desires may be kept from us as we learn to place our wishes in his sight…that we may be prepared to receive all good things with gratitude.”1
Calvin’s four “rules” for prayer follow, but they are not so much “rules” as attitudes of heart, without which prayer is impossible.
1. Reverence for God
(Psalm 25:1 “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul”.)
Those who engage in prayer do so only when they are “so impressed with the majesty of God that they do so free from all earthly cares and affections”2. We cannot “grovel in the mire” if we want to experience fellowship with God on High.
This also, says Calvin, sets us free from praying for the wrong things. Whilst God encourages us to pour out our hearts over what troubles us (in that sense, anything is on the agenda), prayer is not giving rein to unwise or selfish desires. Rather our respect for God’s glory and greatness means that we approach with his will and desires on our hearts, not our own. “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
At this point Calvin is making the same point as in the (Anglican) Homily 19 written around the same time, where we are urged to pray first for spiritual needs and then material ones (“seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” Matthew 6:33).
2. Sense of need
(Psalm 50:15 “Call on me in the day of trouble”.)
Casually coming out with words, without a heartfelt desire to be heard and helped by God, is not prayer. Never enter God’s presence without a strong desire to obtain what you ask3, says Calvin. He is not saying that I always have to feel desperate to pray – we can equally pray when joyful, he notes (James 5:13 “Is any of you in trouble? Let them pray. Is any joyful? Let them sing psalms”). But prayer must come from a sense of empty-handedness before God.
We are told to pray “at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and this reminds us that, even if we are rich and well-fed, we must constantly thank God for the rain, sun and harvests that have given us food to eat and clothing to wear.
Repentance is a vital aspect of sensing need. Approaching God as if we deserve to be given access to his throne is a sign of spiritual complacency often warned against in Scripture: “these people draw near to me with their mouth, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). But approaching with hearts desperate for forgiveness leads to confidence, “Whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments” (1 John 3:22).
3. Sense of unworthiness
(Daniel 9:18: “We do not present our requests because we are righteous, but because you are merciful.”)
The proud or “vain” heart thinks it approaches God as His equal, having a right to be heard because of my status or abilities. Calvin warns that this is a grave mistake, and gives an impressive number of examples of people of faith in the Bible who pray with humility at their own sinfulness or weakness, and yet are heard by God. Confidence in prayer increases as self-confidence decreases. His point is that we are heard not because we are clever or righteous, but because God is gracious and merciful. David says in Psalm 25:18 “Look upon my affliction and pain, and forgive my sins”.
4. Confidence of success
(Mark 11:24:”Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”)
We may need to beware self-confidence when we pray, but we can be confident that God hears us.
Some say it is arrogant to be certain that God hears our prayers, that we should rely on the prayers of “saints” more holy that us, but this assurance in prayer, says Calvin, is simply Christian faith in action. Just as our confidence in being reconciled to God rests not on our moral uprightness but Christ’s death for us, our assurance of being heard rests not on our spiritual perfection but on Christ’s opening the way for us into God’s presence.
“So then let us approach the throne of grace boldly that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our our time of need” (Hebrew 4:16). Jesus, our great high priest, intercedes for us (Hebrew 7:25). The Anglican Homily on Prayer emphasizes the same point, that “Jesus Christ is the mediator between us and God” (quoting 1 Timothy 2:5, a key verse also to Calvin).
It is actually an act of defiance NOT to pray: Psalm 50:15 is an open invitation to anyone – “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you”. We may feel embarrassed by our unworthiness to come into His presence, or inadequate to pray compared to “saints” we admire, but the door is open, and “it would be presumptuous to go forward into the presence of God, had he not anticipated us by his invitation”4.
How strange that we neglect prayer, and take its promises so coldly, when it is so openly and universally offered to us if we will just come in reverent, empty-handed humility. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are saved” (Proverbs 18:10). “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7).
Calvin’s caveat: “rules” are there to be broken
“We may not be as godly as patriarchs, prophets, or apostles” says Calvin. Our attitudes of heart may often be weak. We may pray with hearts that are at times worldly, self-reliant and proud. “But if we trust the promises of God”, he finishes, “we are in respect of the privilege of prayer their equals.”5
Read Psalm 25 slowly, making its praise of God and its cries to Him your own.
1 Calvin, Institutes III.20.3
2 Institutes III.20.5
3 Institutes III.20.6
4 Institutes III.20.13
5 Institutes III.20.14
GE2015: The news last week was that polls are showing that whilst older people are planning to vote in numbers, young adults are not. For those of us who are Christians there does seem to me to be a responsibility not only to pray for those in authority over us but to vote for them, believing in the Lordship of Christ over all society and not only the Church. This excellent website “Show up” gives encouragement to vote prayerfully and intelligently and information on how churches can arrange “hustings” for local candidates to speak to those electing their MP.
For those of us with an interest in philosophy or maths, this is quite a fun video referenced this week by Justin Taylor about the absurdity of thinking the universe might be infinite, with a second video of Dr Lane Craig explaining the relevance of the maths to faith.
Two archbishops, present and former, have been in the news: Justin Welby in Birmingham, for his response to a Muslim student, and comments about his views on marriage and same-sex attraction, and George Carey, whose inclusion as one of the influential former students featured on the front wall of King’s College London may be discontinued. Apparently his views on same-sex “marriage” were objected to by the college’s LGBT society. These views appear to be only those of many other leading Christian thinkers and leaders, and consistent with the Church of England’s position. Tolerance?
For a short but thoughtful (Biblical) response to the political debate on UK immigration figures, I liked this from Mark Meynell.