Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Use of Praying

Neville Ward, an English Methodist Minister, published The Use of Praying in 1967; my copy is of the Thirteenth impression, dated 1985, and it must be about then that I first read the book. Over the years, I have from time to time dipped into it again, but only recently, acting as a Facilitator of a group at All Saints’ Episcopal church in Rehoboth, Delaware, have I re-read it, probably more thoroughly than on my first reading years ago. This exercise confirmed my earlier view that this is one of the most sensible books on prayer written in the 20th century. I have been informed that the book was re-issued in 1998 and is available at

[After one use of [sic], in order to avoid a wearying repetition, I will note here that Ward is, as almost everyone was so short a time ago as the 1960s, quite blind to the gender issue. God is always H/he, people are always man or mankind and interactions are between “God and man”. I sometimes come across a sermon or lecture I produced before 1970 and find, to my total embarrassment, the identical phenomenon. I have no doubt that Ward would phrase things differently today.]


High on my list of approval is its refreshingly unpious approach, a striking down-to-earth quality. Here are a few examples:
“If prayer is regarded simply, without qualification, as a request to God to do certain things he would not do if we did not ask him and will do simply because we ask him, we are wasting our time” (p.85). Ward notes that such a view of prayer is extremely common, and my observations of the contemporary American religious scene suggest that it is even more prevalent here today than when Ward wrote. A few minutes tuned in to a Televangelist will provide ample instances, as, indeed, do clips on News programs: someone standing in front of an intact house surrounded by flattened neighbors’ dwellings intones: “It was only our prayers that saved us”.

Then, on bible reading: “Much of the bible is second-rate literature, which we would not dream of reading if it were, for example, part of the literature of classical Greece or Rome”. (p. 110). Students reading classics at University may be required “to read such second-rate authors as Menander, Plautus and Ennius” and students of theology, archeology or Semitic languages need to read vast tracts of the Old Testament which will hardly help the average Christian to pray. He goes on, “The book of Genesis, the Joseph and David sagas, the Psalms, the book of Job, and some of the visions of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are enough for the average believer who is reading the Old Testament in the attempt to increase his (sic) knowledge of God and to advance in the life of love”. (p. 111).

Here is a final example, which not only exemplifies this refreshingly frank dealing with a practice that is all too often coated with saccharine (or its contemporary equivalent), but which also suggests that Ward is setting the practice of prayer in a much larger context of theology. He writes: “The answer to prayer that matters most is the general result which prayer is expected and intended to achieve, the purpose for which prayer is used; and this is the expression and deepening of our faith in God, our desire for the coming of his rule in our perplexing world, and our love for him, and his created world of infinitely interesting persons and things. If prayer does not do this for us, after a reasonable trial, it is a waste of time and should be abandoned for more fruitful activities. Life is just too short to waste time praying if praying does not help one to love life and enjoy it more”. (p.99). I think this is more than a breath of fresh air; it is a rush of fresh air that might be enough to drown out the cries of anguish from pious Anglo-Catholics and Conservative Evangelicals alike; (though, on second thoughts, are there any A-Cs left?).

The Eucharist

This down-to-earth quality is striking, but it should not suggest that Ward is not serious about prayer and the Christian life: he repeatedly stresses the centrality of Thanksgiving for both, and not surprisingly considers that the Eucharist underpins the whole enterprise of living a Christian calling. “[I]t is in the Eucharist that one sees most clearly what prayer really is in the Christian tradition… Private prayer is a secondary thing. That is not to say that it is not important but simply that it is derivative”. (p.13f). And later on he writes, “It is far more important that young Christians should be taught that Christianity is a religion dominated by thankfulness than that ‘he died to make us good’”. (p. 24). Each chapter has practical, helpful and sometimes pungent things to say about many other aspects of prayer. The two chapters on “Resenting” and “Fearing” are, I think, particularly good.

Wider Theology

Beyond all these excellent qualities of this remarkable book which flooded back as I re-read it and discussed it with the Study Group, something else emerged: more and more I felt that this work, although centered on the subject of prayer, is, in effect, a wide-ranging theological excursus, the central theme of which is the nature of God and the manner of divine activity in the created order. This is not a theme that is in any way systematically worked out and, indeed, is hardly explicit, but it provides a substantial infrastructure to the work as a whole.

David Jenkins on Divine Providence

As a starting point, I take a small book by David Jenkins produced while he was Bishop of Durham. It has the somewhat quirky title of God, Miracle and the Church of England. I say “produced” because the book is put together from several sermons, an address to Synod and parts of two Lecture series; as a result, it is somewhat uneven, but it courageously faces pressing issues and its central theme is clear enough: a consideration of divine providence. How does God interact with the created order?

God and the Chalcedonian Definition

Jenkins has fun with a ‘thought experiment’ about the death of the emperor Theodosius, which had significant repercussions at the Council of Chalcedon: his successor, the Empress Pulcheria, first of all deposed Bishop Chrysaphius, the political intriguer who had been protecting Eutyches; she then married a Thracian army officer, Marcian, who was a firm supporter of Pope Leo. Thus Theodosius’ fatal fall from his horse, “ensured” that the Greek tradition based on the Nicene settlement of “speaking of the ‘one nature’ (=one Person) of Jesus Christ” was trumped by the Western tradition. This had been defined first by Tertullian in the terms that “Jesus Christ is one Person, and that in him are two natures of Godhead and manhood” (R.V Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon, P.96f., quoted in Jenkins, P.45). So, presto! Theodosius falls of is horse and the Definition of Chalcedon emerges. As David Jenkins points out, this has been, and still is, frequently used as ‘proof’ that the Definition is a kind of hot line from God; by this rather circuitous route, God has given us final and definitive information about the Incarnation; so, let no one question.

Meddle with the Molecules

The question, then, for the thought experiment is, “Did God push the Emperor Theodosius off his horse on 28 July 450?” (p. 61). Not surprisingly, Jenkins returns a resounding “no”, but points out, as I just noted, that many discussions about current happenings in the church often seem to imply an affirmative answer. In summing up this section David Jenkins writes, “Unless we can be clear that between the scientific and historical causalities of the universe and of the world on the one hand and the actions and transactions of God with persons on the other there is a space, then the problem of evil is absolutely overwhelming. I personally would sympathize with those who find evil overwhelming in any case. But as a Christian who believes that there is a real and basic sense in which God interacts with the world as he is in Jesus, I do not believe this. Nonetheless I am increasingly clear that God is not an arbitrary meddler nor an occasional fixer.” (p.63). Then with what must be an allusion to a form of process theology, the section concludes: God is “a God of open personal transactions who insists and persists in a self-giving way of risk, and self- denying way of invitation that has not yet established anything like a total persuasive sway over or in a universe which – to borrow Austin Farrer’s phrase – God has made so that it has to make itself.” (p. 64) (I have a strong feeling that Farrer wrote, “can create itself”, but perhaps the difference is only of interest to philosophers).

Back to Ward

All this may seem an over-long introduction to, even a digression from, the issue of prayer, but I do not think so. Ward, as I have pointed out, is quite clear that prayer cannot be thought of as sending a message to “out there” to get God to effect something “back here”. It is quite natural, perhaps inevitable, that on the way to get the results of an X-ray, one finds oneself praying that it be a clear picture. Are we hoping that God will have crept into the Lab with some white-out to cover up a suspicious shadow, or that even before the picture was taken God had intervened to remove a growth or kill off some bacteria? One has to agree with both Ward and Jenkins that such thinking about God and God’s dealings with the created order are distressingly common, and may well lie behind a great deal of the acrimony surrounding practical courses of action within the church since the way in which we envisage the divine action is crucial.

Divine Action in the World

In The Use of Praying, this factor is, I feel, never far away. Ward writes: “God has nothing whatever to give anyone but himself, some share in what he is taking such a long time doing with man, the strain of the infinity of questions his action in the world raises, and a much-attested deposit of love, joy and peace in the mind.” (p. 100). If this is not ‘process theology’, it is a very good imitation of it, and in some degree it echoes (though written two decades earlier) Jenkins’ insistence that we must differentiate God’s inter-acting with people from the divine activity in created order of electrons, atoms and molecules, in which God does not “meddle”.

Implicit view of God

What picture of God emerges as Ward writes? As I have noted, he does not deal with this in any systematic way, but there are many asides almost that suggest the outlines of a portrait (with the proviso, of course, that it is not even possible to talk about God , let alone paint a portrait of her).
Ward quotes approvingly, “All our word must be ‘given a bath’ (Luther)… they must go through the cross. For it is at the cross of Jesus that his disciples and with them the Church must first learn how sovereignty, the kingdom, the love, the righteousness of God are actualized.” (H. Gollwitzer, Ward, p. 27). In this context, it is clear that we are to think of revelation as something going on, a process, not a divine package once and for all delivered. Ward never quite explicitly says we can never know God directly; we can in some sense ‘know’ Jesus and that is sufficient. This echoes his final chapter, The Night of Faith, is a pellucidly clear exposition of the mysticism of St. John of the Cross: “there is nothing in God on which our senses can operate”. One of the reasons for St. John’s choice of the metaphor of the dark night is “that our ignorance of God is stupendous”, yet, “Jesus Christ, we believe, (note, believe, not know) has humanized God for us, so that it is much easier for people who have ‘seen’ Jesus to love God… but there is a mystery about Jesus too. No one seems to understand him in any final and complete way.” (p. 149)


It is clear, too, that Ward suggests a Christology that takes Jesus’ humanity very seriously and is far removed from the typical 19th century view that, for example, insisted that the critics must be wrong about the Davidic authorship of the Psalms since, according to Mark, Jesus says David composed Ps. 110. He points to the typical Messianic longings of first century Judaism for a time “when all doubt and uncertainty is over and it is as clear as the day that we were right all along and the others were wrong. This longing was part of the outlook Jesus inherited as a Jew. It is of course an unsatisfactory way of thinking; one suspects here that it is already disintegrating for [Jesus], that he wants to put it all very differently. New thoughts are already taking shape in his mind.” (p. 39).

Hints of Process Theology

I will close with two examples that suggest at least a substratum of process theology. In the excellent chapter on Suffering Ward relies heavily on the idea that God is deeply involved in human suffering and at one point suggests that God ‘nervously’ and ‘hopefully’ asks us to do his will, (does that imply, suffer with God?) (p. 82). A nervous God seems light years away from and omnipotent, omniscient and impassible God of many dogmatic formulations.

Finally a long quotation from the book that needs no comment:

"The prayer that is mere request, without self-offering, is not prayer ‘in his name’ and is not worth the time it takes to say. This throws some light on the delays of providence. There must be many problems (the unity of the Church, the peace of the world) whose solutions must wait because God intends the answers to our prayers for these matters to come through persons willing to be bearers of the answer. [cf. Farrer’s ‘created a universe that can create itself’]. To bring the world before God in prayer is to stand where you can hear most clearly the most tragic voice in the universe, God’s despair of man, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’” (p. 84).

I know of two other books by Neville Ward, both excellent:
Friday Afternoon and Following the Plough
Both were originally published by the Epworth Press, 1976 & 1978

1 comment:

Cabell said...

Simon's study group is doubly blessed. First by his use of Ward in their sessions on prayer and second on their teacher himself who is open in his search for real theology that points to God without the conciet of 'knowing'