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Abp. Welby’s priority: prayer

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I have been interested to find, as much in private conversations as in published articles, a relative ambivalence among some Anglicans with regard to our current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Aside from the general goodwill that many seem to feel for him and aside from the rather enthusiastic crushes a number of Guardian reporters have expressed for Welby (my favorite of these latter articles must be this one), I’m not sure that anyone is really paying much attention to his actual stated priorities or sense of mission. In other words, it seems that those professedly outside the Church are relatively more interested in certain aspects of Welby, at least more than the supposed Anglican flock he is shepherding, but no one’s really listening to the whole message.

This is really a shame, in my opinion, as I have been interested in a number of themes which continue to emerge in Welby’s public statements, especially those uttered when he is addressing youth or large crowds. The most striking of these statements, at least to me, is his continued insistence that the priority of the Church, beyond anything else, must be to commit itself to fostering and supporting the life of prayer. Much was made of the fact that Welby described the current change in Western culture, especially around sexual issues, as a revolution which the Church still has not caught up to or recognized. Less has been made about the fact that he has said more than once (at least, here and here) that the only proper response of the Church is to dedicate itself ever more to prayer in the light of crisis and change in the world. “If we don’t have this right, we won’t get anything,” is what he seems to say again and again. Yet more interesting are the types of historical examples the Archbishop will deploy to explain his vision: the initial founding of Benedictine monasticism in the wake of Rome’s fall, the establishment and work of the Franciscan order amongst the tumult of the later Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Methodists amidst the Industrial Revolution. Hardly a handful of tame models. Welby seems as much committed to revolutionary change in the Church as any one of those in the “Emergent” or “Fresh Expressions” movements. The difference is that he is emphasizing prayer, rather than anything else. This should be noted, not ignored.

What all this implies is that Welby thinks that Anglicans and indeed all Christians have swung a bit off-kilter in recent years. To raise a call to prayer, to make it one’s priority beyond all other things, is to declare that prayer has, in some sense, been devalued of late or even abandoned in favor of other activities or no activity. I wonder how much this resonates with the experience of those reading this post. How many churches or even cathedrals have you seen that continue to offer Morning and Evening Prayer even a few days a week? Not as many as ought to, I would imagine, despite the fact that there are few things on earth more superfluous, more a tremendous waste of space and capital, than a cathedral or church building that does not know the sound of the Daily Office, that does not echo with the rhythm of a people at prayer. And how many priests keep up the discipline privately if they are, for whatever reason, unable to offer up daily prayers in the churches of which they are rectors? But I digress, forgetting that this post is about Justin Welby.

What marks out the current Archbishop to me as well is his public commitment to a variety of forms of prayer and his tendency to mention both traditionally Catholic and Evangelical models. When asked about his “prayer life” in a wide-ranging interview at his former church home of Holy Trinity Brompton, Welby freely stated that the Daily Office is the structure around which the rest of his prayers and his life rotates. But he also noted other times during the day when he seeks private prayer or contemplation of the day’s readings. And he has said that he prays “in tongues” as part of his own spiritual discipline. He has been openly enthusiastic about a variety of forms of worship and prayer and seems equally at home among evangelicals and charismatics, as well as among, perhaps surprisingly, Anglo-Catholics. He attends a Hillsong service one week and presides over Mass and Benediction in Walsingham the next.

But what does all of this mean? On the one hand, it appears that the ABC does not seem ready to push a single form of prayer, the Daily Office, to the exclusion of all others or even to push from a single Anglican tradition, as the Church’s response to revolutionary changes in the world. He is quite clear about his idea that prayer fitted to our times must partake of many models. On the other hand, it must be said that he sees the founding of “religious communities” of prayer as a common feature of both Catholic and Evangelical revival. Not exactly a traditionally evangelical turn of phrase. I have no doubt that it will be some time before we see the final fruits and meaning of Welby’s stated commitment to fostering the life of prayer. But part of what this all means is that our Archbishop of Canterbury has set an agenda which seems rather different from what others are making of him. It is perhaps not what we might have expected (e.g. it’s not “hold the Anglican Communion together”). But it is an agenda which all Anglicans ought to be able to support, if they are the least bit interested in the spiritual life. After all, if we don’t get this right, how can we get the rest?

Or, as Welby put it when addressing the New Wine conference:

There has never been a renewal of the Church in Western Europe without a renewal of prayer and the life of religious communities; never. If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. It starts with a new spirit of prayer, using all the traditions, ancient and modern, of prayer. When it comes, it will be linked to what has gone before, but it will look different, because it is a new renewal for new times. God’s created community is perfectly designed for its time and place. It always comes from below; almost always. It comes from Christians seeking Christ, and is often — says I, looking at the one bishop I can see from here — is often opposed by church leaders, and especially archbishops.

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  1. WelbyWatch 1: the Community of St Anselm | Covenant - [...] this time last year, I wrote a post on this blog titled Abp. Welby’s priority: prayer, in which I ...

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