Some time ago I came across an article in The Church Times by Bishop John Saxbee, whose previous books include ‘Liberal Evangelism’, reflecting on the place of prayer in Evangelism. His position is fairly typical: ‘the enlightenment can’t be undone’; ‘the modern world view does not leave much room for God to respond to prayer’; ‘prayer is a good thing because it brings understanding and heightened awareness of issues and possibilities about situations when a person prays about them.’
All this is, to my mind, rather old hat and like an old hat should be thrown out. I often think about a conversation I had over forty years ago with a nun at Fairacres. I was complaining that I had been praying for a friend who was very ill with cancer and that God didn’t seem to be answering the prayer as my friend’s illness still progressed. The sister replied very directly ‘ who the hell do you think you are – God?’ ‘Prayer’ as Bishop Saxbee wrote ‘is a theological question.’ In the end it boils down to what the pray- er believes about God that will shape that person’s prayer. If God is only a God of ‘the gaps’ then quite a lot of prayer will be a ‘filling’ process: something that happens in the small places where human understanding and knowledge has not yet succeeded in removing the unknown.
Our understanding of prayer will also be determined by what we understand by being human. If we believe that humanity by reason can shape and order the world, and if we believe that ‘spirituality’ is a useful complement to the process of reason then it clearly makes intercession in an orthodox sense useless. This is another example of how the twentieth first –century liberal knows everything better than Jesus! There is not enough space here to set about a demolition of such a fatuous position but the physical sciences and the study of consciousness, as well as new horizons in philosophy, have left the liberal stranded on their own opinions.
Intercession is a work that God calls us to. Jesus prayed for Peter that he would be strengthened; Peter prayed for the churches in his care that they would be faithful: and in their prayer they were opening up the pastoral relationship to the Heavenly Father for only Father knows times and seasons and as the Lord’s prayer recognised is both the provider of bread, and the deliverer from evil. The work of prayer is a recognition that through the gift of the Holy Spirit God calls us into partnership with him; it is a recognition of his trust in us that we should work with him in bearing others burdens. Prayer is the activity of the Spirit who continually draws us into the mystery of His work. The whole Christian life is a life for others and in the Divine economy to spend our selves in prayer for others is the productive expression of faith that can ‘move mountains.’