The idea of national prayer has been at a discount for decades in the UK. As the leaders of the churches call for a National Day of Prayer and Action on March 22nd in response to the coronavirus crisis, I take a look back.
This extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey looks at his handling of the crisis of the early 1970s and the idea of the national day of prayer. Who exactly was being called to prayer, and what was it intended to achieve? What was the archbishop for in a time of crisis?
The late sixties saw a spate of national and international events which were experienced by many as a more general crisis for the UK at large. Internationally there was continuing war in Vietnam. At home, between August 1971 and March 1972 Ulster saw the introduction of internment, the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. The period also saw inflation, deteriorating balance of payments figures, increasing budget deficits and strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers from January 1972; December 1973 brought another strike, the imposition of the three day week and soon afterwards the collapse of the government of Edward Heath.
What could the churches do ? In a time of crisis, these were things which significant sections of the public still expected the archbishop to address, even if the means by which to Do Something were obscure both to him and to those doing the asking.
The early decades of the twentieth century had seen the emergence of a new form of national worship in the United Kingdom: the ‘national day of prayer’, which had reached a peak during the Second World War. By Ramsey’s time, however, there was a lack of appetite within government or the wider establishment for occasions of national worship, and a similar reluctance amongst the bishops to call such occasions on their own initiative.
Nonetheless, just as Randall Davidson had been inundated with requests for days of prayer on ‘the Japanese War, or Macedonia, or Armenia, or Chinese Labour, or Welsh Education, or the Revival Movement’, the requests to Lambeth Palace to call such days continued to arrive in a steady trickle. As John Wolffe has noted, the felt need for national intercession was most acute in times of war and national emergency; and the trickle became a steady stream in Ramsey’s last years.
Ramsey’s personal view had long been that calls for prayers for specific ends ‘lend themselves to a rather mechanical view of what prayer means.’ It was better instead to call for constant personal prayer as a profitable habit among the body of lay Christians. There was greater benefit to be gained through ‘constantly teaching Christian people about the meaning of prayer so that we are all the time building up in the world a community of praying people.’
Quite apart from the problematic theology of prayer that national days implied, there were practical difficulties as well. There was a reluctance to arrange days of prayer on everything from the 1966 earthquake in Turkey to British entry into the Common Market, since by doing so serious in-roads would be made into the liturgical year. In addition, Ramsey’s staff found it by no means straightforward to secure the media coverage necessary to effect the call.
Even more pertinently, the issues around which public pressure for days of prayer crystallised in the early 1970s, such as the Troubles in Ulster or the miners’ strike, were not ones that commanded any sort of national unanimity. The standard reply template being used by Ramsey’s staff in December 1973 argued that the judgement to be made by Ramsey was a fine one since ‘it might be that a call to the nation of this kind would not have the same result in the country as in the days of the War, when we were all pretty solidly united.’
So there were several reasons why Ramsey and his episcopal colleagues were reluctant to call days of prayer, and there were as a result only four such occasions during Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The first was in relation to Northern Ireland in September 1971, and a second on St Patrick’s Day in the following March. The call on St Patrick’s Day was repeated the following year, and the fourth was the final Sunday of 1973, called in relation to the economic situation. In December 1973 the call was released to a ‘day of prayer for the nation and its leaders that God may guide us in facing the present crisis with wisdom, justice and self-sacrifice’. Even then, special care was taken that it was not described as a ‘National Day of Prayer’, since to do so would be ‘totally misjudged and could be severely criticised in the present climate of divisiveness and agnosticism.’
In this Ramsey was responding to a clear and growing sense of crisis both within the church and in the nation at large, and to the expectations of at least some of the public that he ought to do so. Ramsey and his colleagues were however neither silent nor inactive in face of the perception of national crisis. At various times Ramsey used speeches to the Church Assembly and the Convocation of Canterbury to address issues of concern. Ramsey spoke about Ireland in a BBC radio broadcast of ‘Lift up Your Hearts’ in September 1971, and on two separate occasions in the House of Lords. Despite all this, the day of prayer was, for some, a weapon in the armoury which it was perverse not to employ. An examination of the reasons advanced sheds valuable light on the role of the archbishop and the providential history of the nation that were current among at least some sections of the British laity at this time.
One reason commonly advanced for such days of prayer was the symbolic effect of joint action between the denominations. Cyril Black, prominent Baptist layman and Conservative MP, advocated a joint call from Canterbury, Westminster and the Free Churches for prayer for Ulster, to demonstrate ‘the united determination of Christians to seek increasingly a way to restore peace and goodwill, and to pray to Almighty God to direct, guide and bless all such efforts.’
For others, these were side-effects, since the primary purpose of such petitionary prayer was its direct and identifiable effect on events. In such times of crisis, it was for the nation as a whole to turn to prayer, and not simply those in the church: ‘it is the people of the Land as a whole who must seek God together for deliverance in a time of extreme National Crisis (2 Chron: 7.14.)’
For many, the time was one with marked parallels with recent British history. Occasional parallels were drawn with events during the First World War, not least the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917. However, for the majority the only benchmark against which the times could be measured was the most prominent historic crisis still in living memory; that of the Second World War.
Of particular symbolic power for some was the great national delivery at Dunkirk in response to just such a day of prayer. One elderly woman with decades of missionary service remembered the day of prayer and ‘and the marvellous answer’ at Dunkirk; another recalled it as ‘a modern miracle performed because the whole country was praying together’ and that in 1973 another was needed ‘to save us from ourselves.’
These calls reveal a good deal about the role Ramsey was thought to play in the religious life of the nation. His correspondents included members of several other denominations, all quite sure that he held a position of peculiar importance amongst religious leaders. One member of the United Reformed Church wrote in February 1974 to assure him that her own congregation had that morning prayed for him, and called on him to take a lead, as the ‘national religious leader.’
However, at the same time petitions for days of prayer could function negatively; as implicit or explicit criticism of the direction of travel in the nation’s moral and religious life, and of perceived neglect on the part of the Archbishop. One Lincolnshire rector attacked the recent deputation of bishops to the Prime Minister to petition against the supply of arms to South Africa. ‘Would it not have been far better,’ he continued, if the bishops had paid more attention to the situation at home, and instead asked the Prime Minister ‘to call the people of our own country to a national day of prayer?’ ‘This country has been sliding from crisis to crisis’ thought one group of correspondents ‘and […] the moral trends have been ever more permissive and ever less Christian.’ Why had Ramsey had ‘not felt the desire, and indeed the necessity, to call the Church of England and all devout Christians to a special day or week of prayer.’ For this correspondent at least, there was indeed a general crisis, in morality as in economics and politics; and it was clear what the nation expected of its archbishop.
By the early 1970s it had long been the case that the calling of such occasions of concerted prayer was co-ordinated between the various denominations. The octave of prayer for Ulster of September 1971 was arranged jointly with Cardinal Heenan and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, and care was taken to circulate the announcement in advance to all the churches in Ulster, and to the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. However, the archbishop was becoming more and more one leader amongst many churches, and less and less the religious leader of the nation that many of his correspondents supposed him to be. The role of the British Council of Churches was expanding to include the calling of joint days of prayer, as was the case for St Patrick’s Day 1973.
There was increasingly an international context in which such occasions had to be framed. In June 1973 there was a joint appeal for worldwide prayer for Northern Ireland from the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s department for ecumenical endeavour. The Pope additionally instituted an annual Sunday in January dedicated to prayer for peace for Catholics, beginning in 1968, with the explicit hope that it might be taken up more widely. Ramsey to begin with chose not to endorse it publicly. However, by 1973 he was being pressed by some of the bishops to support Peace Sunday (as it had become known) more publicly; a suggestion to which he was more open by that time, having already commended it privately to the bishops.
It may well be the case that the cluster of days of prayer called by Ramsey in 1971-3 were the last such significant group. These occasions, and the public correspondence concerning them, reveal much about perceptions, both within his own church and without, of the Archbishop’s own peculiar role at the interface of the British church, state and nation. In times of national crisis, many felt they knew what an archbishop was for.
[Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, and also available via Amazon and all good bookshops. ]