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The Mohawks pray for King George IIIHallo again to all.

Of late we have worshiped in a number of new churches, always keeping our eyes and ears open to what makes which church itself: how established folk greet newcomers, how the music sounds, where the focus is, what the coffee tastes like. In unpacking these recent experiences, all of which took place in the same diocese in the United States, we have been struck by how much there is in common among disparate churches. Vesture, posture and gesture all seem to have leveled churchmanship in various ways; the text of the liturgy, too, does not vary overmuch. Even the warm welcome and the coffee are about the same everywhere.

What did strike us as different in each church we visited was whose names got mentioned in the service. At one church, politicans and bishops were interceded for generically; the old BCP Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church is handy this way. At another, they were named specifically: president and primate were both mentioned by their Christian names during the intercessions. At still another, there was a mixture that included the name of the president and the diocesan bishop, but not the primate. As these choices always seemed to be fairly precise, they got us to thinking and digging about a liturgical matter of no little importance: for whom do we pray, and for whom do we most decidedly not pray?

The subject turns up first in our end of the ecclesiastical world during the English Reformation. Among the first and most significant changes were those made in books by explicit royal order of 1535:

books used in churches, wherein the said bishop of Rome is named or his presumptuous and proud pomp and authority preferred, [are] utterly to be abolished, eradicated and erased out.

Prayer was allegiance, and incorrect prayer—especially mentioning the wrong names in publick prayer—was treason. The service books that survived the several subsequent reformations show a remarkable degree of compliance with this order. The pope's name and office are scratched out, cut out, pasted over and otherwise removed in many instances wherever they occur. (If the subject strikes your interest, you can read about it in Eamon Duffy's magisterial Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 or his more recent Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570.)

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the Nonjuring schism introduced a new instance of prayer being used to signify allegiance. Although the primary objection of the Nonjurors was to breaking oaths they believed permanent, and swearing them afresh to a new king, they also objected to praying for a new king as king while the old king still lived. Accordingly, laypeople and clergy alike left the church in substantial numbers rather than sully their consciences with prayers for the wrong person. Those who stayed in the established church despite their qualms are remembered as coughing at appropriate moments in the service, or clapping Prayer Books shut when members of the usurping dynasty intruded in the liturgy through their inevitable mention.

Family negativeNext, North America provides an example of politics secular and churchly changing the names in prayer. Many pre-revolutionary parishes in the United States are proud of their original service-books, if they have survived. In quite a few of these we see the same old attitude of ecclesiastical erasure at work. Just as royal statues and arms were pulled down by American patriots eager to take part in the pleasures of damnatio memoriae, Prayer Books met with paper pasted carefully (and ink streaked not always so carefully) over intercessions deemed offensive or irrelevant in the new political context.

Today, we still see this old practice alive and well in fresh ways. A parish that is particularly strong in controversial conviction may have intercessions for like-minded bishops instead of local ones; clergy who do not care for some elected officials may omit their names from the service. Some likely use the completely nameless formulation to avoid thinking about prayer as allegiance. Most probably just mention the head of state and diocesan bishop and get on with their lives of reasonable service. However the intercessory chips fall, the truth remains that liturgy is now as ever crafted to meet the needs and wants of those who use it.

For all its antiquity, though, we wonder if all the energy spent on deciding for whom one ought to pray, and whom one ought to acknowledge in whatever role, has always been worth it. The Gospels' directions about for whom we should pray turn the whole question upside down: we're to pray for our enemies most especially, not for those whose opinions are coziest to ours. Intercession in this needful, imperative model is not just one more form of churchly weaponry and demarcation. It is a balm for brokenness, a gentle reminder of real interdependence lurking still beneath the surface of a troubled communion. It's even, maybe, a little part of what could lead us toward that place whose 'ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace'.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 20 September 2009

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