The Politics of Prayer

Evensong 27 August 2017


More and more we are conscious of a strange loss of nerve in the West today—a spiritual torpor, a restlessness. No one knows whether things will hold together; indeed as the poet tells us “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Yet in this fragile situation some see a decisive role for the Church. Tonight I want to discuss the 2009 contribution of the English theologian Graham Ward in The Politics of Discipleship.

Ward speaks of a crisis of democracy in a world where culture is global and big corporations pull the strings.  Not only are our global cities plagued by homelessness and wage slavery, but there is now “a new class of somnambulists surfeited with shopping and anesthetized with entertainment, cultivating their own lifestyle and profoundly forgetful of civic responsibilities and the … needs of the disadvantaged.”

Nevertheless, there are also cross currents. Some have noted the rise of a new post-material politics: there is a real thirst to move away from economic growth for its own sake, and from the competitive individualism that weakens community life, that lessens our wellbeing. This is a politics the Church can support and, indeed, baptize: for the Church, he says, is the new city rising up in our midst. It is a new polis, with its own vision of the good life; and we are its citizens. We belong to an enchanted social order, even in the midst of the secular city. We are the new humanity, and the life within us is Christ—the new Human Being, the new Adam.

It is we who must struggle for the soul of the city, for the soul of humanity.



One of Ward’s great contributions, I think, is to anchor it all in prayer. Prayer, or contemplation, is the cutting edge of discipleship, he says, for in prayer we learn how to listen to the Master—Christ within us. And this is timely for us to hear, for we do not pray as we ought. Maybe prayer is something we have struggled with, but given up on, or perhaps we feel we have never really understood it.

Ward says:

“It is both I and the Spirit within me who pray. … Christ in me disrupts the atomized individual, unseats him or her from being in command, opens the self to the infinity of what is God. None of the acts of [discipleship], outwardly or inwardly, can be reduced to the exertion of an individual’s will. Every act is folded into the orientation of the self toward what endlessly transcends it, what Maximus the Confessor describes as “the divine, universal infinity…of his greatness there is no end… that boundless abyss of goodness, too great for astonishment.” What we bring in prayer to this enfolding is the world itself—not simply ourselves but the whole world we are caught up in, that vast network of relationships of which we are a part, the complex corporations onto which our bodies are mapped. As Christians, we bring to God all the concerns and connections we have with the contemporary world…: the crisis of democracy, the reduction of life to economics and consumption, and the various roles that religion is playing and being forced to play in the public sphere. Praying is thus the most political act any Christian can engage in…”

“There is a praying that goes on within us as the Spirit breathes and the soul communes. The world’s events as they come to our attention from various sources—the media, present circumstances, the hearing of other people’s stories, and so forth—are filtered through our ensouled flesh. They are registered within and they modify within as we attune ourselves to the world. That miraculous escape we read about in the newspaper that caused us joy, those gangs of teenage girls and boys congregating at the corner shop late at night that cause us to fear and move us to pity, those scenes of carnage on the news in the wake of a bomb attack that cause us to shudder at the violence and grieve with the shell-shocked—all these events pass through us and change us. And as we dwell in Christ and Christ in us, then they pass through Christ also. This is what I mean by praying: that deep inhabitation of the world, its flesh and its spirit, that stirs a contemplation and a reading of the signs of the times that is more profound than we can ever apprehend or appreciate. This is what in German can be described as the Urgrund of Christian discipleship: we live and act as transistors for the transformation of the world through Christ. It is not just the individual who is being conformed to Christ; it is the whole of creation. Indeed, it is only as individuals give back to Christ the world in which they subsist that they themselves are transformed.”

“In our inhabitation of the world, we are continually listening. For what? … [P]art of what we listen to is our yearning, the reaching out of our desire for communion with Christ. There may be a thousand petitions, requests, voiced frustrations, and cries of hurt in prayer, but fundamentally what we are articulating is our yearning. In this yearning we glimpse the yearning of the church itself, glimpse ourselves as part of the body of Christ extended through time and across space. And since Christ is that which is most interior to us, as the “I in you,” then part of what we listen to is Christ’s yearning, that yearning in the heart of Christ to heal and transform. … Prayer is thus always concerned with ushering in the kingdom of God, even though what this kingdom is has yet to be revealed. Every prayer reaches out toward some inchoate understanding of, even present participation in, another order—a true, just, and good order being prepared, waiting to be revealed. … Every act of Christian living is testimony to the reality of the kingdom as a new social and political realm.”


So speaks Ward on prayer.

Yes, prayer is political: for by it we transform the world. This is how we will struggle for the soul of the secular city.  Contemplation will be the basis of all our action to humanise the world. From the heart will flow all our work—visiting the sick and the prisoners, clothing the naked, sustaining the hungry and thirsty, or taking in the homeless poor—as Matthew 25 has classically it.  I hasten to say that Ward’s vision is not somehow pietistic; it emphasises contemplation and action equally.

Much more could be said about Ward’s important and complex book The Politics of Discipleship. It is something of a charter for a Church seeking new relevance, seeking really to be the alternative city, the city of God.

So though the earthly city, with its brand names and virtual realities, be scattered to the winds, we will abide with Christ—Christ in whom all things hold together.