Praying from the edges

We pray. It doesn’t matter how or when – there’s no set prayer book. But a life of pioneering mission is fueled by prayer. We draw on the riches of others to inspire our prayer – the world church, our own traditions, religious communities. And we write and create our own to express our particular longings. We depend on God. We grieve for what is broken. We hope for what can be.

When I reflected on the wonderful gift that pioneers bring I wrote that up as True North with nine facets. One of them is prayer and the words above are what I wrote at that time which I still like. I am not sure what constitutes prayer for you but for me it is a whole mix of things. I am a spontaneous rather than routine person so I like to mix things up. I like variety. Part of that mix is certainly using art, images, music and so on to reflect, as well as contemplative practices, written prayers, liturgy and having informal conversation with God, walking, silence, retreat.

Maybe it is the state of the world at the moment, maybe it is that I have become more aware of privilege and whiteness, maybe it’s the experience of how broken Britain seems, but I especially appreciate what I would call praying from the edges, or praying from below. I realise that the language of centre and edges is not straightforward: who gets to decide what is centre and what is edge? But hopefully it will do for now. It fits well with how we are trying to reflect on what we are about at CMS.

The best possible way to do that is to be with people when they pray and feel the longings of those prayers. There are plenty of communities in the UK to be with who are at the edge in that way. Reading the Magnificat with cleaners from Clean For Good has lingered in my imagination for a few months now since I was with them in December for evening prayer for example. Somehow the words carried a different meaning or resonance when prayed with them.

The best resource CMS have ever been involved in producing, or certainly the most popular and best known, is called The Christ We Share (sorry it’s no longer available). It’s a collection of 32 images of Christ which are representations from cultures all round the world. They include the classic American-looking Jesus from the 50s or Robert Powell from the series Jesus of Nazareth, which I remember being on television when I was a teenager. But those are alongside African, Asian, South American, First Nations representations. There is a set of notes which gives some context to each image. I have always loved it and used it with many groups. What it does is to help you see that your own image is a take from where you are standing, rather than the take. And you quickly realise that you are going to have a richer picture if you have those multiple representations, some of which are quite different and quite disrupting in their own way. It’s a kind of expanding of horizons, drawing the curtains back so you have a bigger view. I think this is all the more important or helpful if your own take has been at the centre of things. When that is the case as it has been for those of us who are white and Western being de-centred is a necessary practice. 

Probably the first window that opened that up to me was praying with women or through women’s eyes. I remember for example Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild’s Human Rites which was a huge collection and had prayers for example for the first menstruation of a girl. Another collection I loved and still turn to is The New Women Included which is a collection from the Community of St Hilda. This was founded in 1987 by women exasperated by the sexism in the church. One if the things they used to do before the ordination of women in the Church of England was to invite ordained women from other places in the world who could lead. This was in the wake of synod voting against this, so was highly subversive and got them thrown out of at least one venue by the then Bishop of London. I also love Janet Morley’s various collections of prayers which seem to combine that women’s perspective mixed with prayers from an experience of poverty. I recognise some of her writing in the Hilda collection actually. Tess Ward’s Celtic Wheel of the Year is another I have used quite a lot. You can pick these books up online secondhand very cheaply. 

I have enthused about Claudio Carvalhaes’ project Liturgies From Below before – that is the most amazing collection of prayers from various places round the world. They are full of thanks, rage, lament, longing, despair, defiance – quite extraordinary really. Reimagining worship has some in the resources section

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder I was amazed how little the prayers and liturgy of the Church of England had to say to that experience. This may just have been my own experience – and, yes, they always include psalms and intercessions – but I was looking for something much deeper, that connected with this terrible experience of oppression, racism, and violence, to grieve, to lament. In the end I had to look elsewhere and it was Gilles Peterson on his BBC Radio 6 Music show who voiced the grief, pain and anger through black protest, blues, reggae and soul music. It wasn’t where I expected to find the ability to pray or to find comfort but I was really grateful to him.

I recently was given Black Liturgies by Cole Arthur Riley. She is North American and reading her prayers and participating in her exercises gives you a sense of what it is like to pray as a black woman in America. She is a very gifted writer.

When I visited Canada last year and indeed before and after I have been exploring, reading and discovering theology and contextual practice among First Nations people. One of the things I discovered in Harold Johnson’s The Power Of Story is that at the end of prayer many First Nations people will say ‘all my relations’. It’s sort of like an amen. I found that a beautiful practice and often end my prayer now with that reminder of gratefulness for my connectedness with the Creator, all people, all creatures, the earth itself. 

One off the most surprising prayers I came across in the last few years goes something like this:

Jesus is my bulldozer Amen! Bulldoze my case O Lord! Amen! He’s my bulldozer, Amen! Bulldoze the lawyer O Lord! Amen! He’s my bulldozer! Amen! Bulldoze the judge O Lord! Amen! Jesus is my bulldozer!

It sounds slightly bonkers at first but when you realise it is a song sung by prisoners who experience a corrupt justice system it makes sense. If you google it you’ll find it out there with various versions. That is in the book Theology Brewed In An African Pot – a gem of a book which has prayers and liturgies at the end of each chapter. 

As for many others, Gaza and the West Bank has been on my mind and in my prayers longing for an end to the violence, brutality and genocide. Amos Trust’s collections Words of Hope and Seeds of Hope are really well put together and are a mix of quotes, prayers, poems arranged into themes like protest, home, hope. Both books then have some liturgies called words of hope that draw things together. The sources are many and varied but Amos Trust has stood in solidarity with Palestinians for many years so there are some prayers for peace and justice that connect well particularly with that context

I could go on.… but hopefully you get the idea. I should add that there is a kind of praying from the edges that frustrates me. An example for me was when I visited India and in the prayers and worship I felt on one occasion I could have been in a Church of England cathedral and on another I could have been at a Hillsongs Church. It’s understandable that with globalisation there are these circulations and exchanges but I find them to be of very little interest. It’s always good to seek out those prayers that have a soulful articulation that is connected to the soil of a place and draws on language, metaphors and imagery from there.

I am so grateful to alternative worship which in many ways opened up this vista to me, both becoming aware of different articulations that might draw on other cultures, but also encouraging that same adventure of the imagination to connect with the cultures we are in. I still long for more of that kind of practice. In my view the way the Church of England controls its liturgies creates a church where that can be pretty difficult to do, especially for example in relation to communion, and needs breaking open very differently. Leaders of worship should be freed up to improvise much more creatively. But a good start is praying from the edges and then perhaps move on to write your own in defiance of empire.

I would love to know what praying from the edges looks like for you. Are there prayers, liturgies, art, music or whatever you use? Do let me know.

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