On May 12, participants at a conference of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer (Canada) in Cochrane, Alta., were treated to a “powerful” presentation that “engaged everyone completely” for two and a half hours, says event organizer the Rev. Bonnie Luft, priest-in-charge at Saint Francis of Assisi Anglican Church in Airdrie, Alta.
The speaker was Stephen Cottrell, bishop of Chelmsford in the Church of England, former member of Springboard, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism team and author of a number of books, including ‘I Thirst’: The Cross—The Great Triumph of Love. Cottrell had come to Alberta at the invitation of Archbishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson, bishop of Calgary and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, to speak at a clergy conference earlier that week, as well as the synod of the province of Rupert’s Land the week before that.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal this June after his return to the U.K., Cottrell shared some of his thoughts on prayer. This interview has been edited for brevity.
What did you say at the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer conference?
One of the reasons people have difficulty with prayer is they don’t really know what it is. A lot of people think that what they’re supposed to be doing is something called “private prayer.” There’s personal prayer, there’s intimate prayer, but Christian prayer is never private.
When I pray—however faltering and hesitant I am—first of all, I’m in solidarity with Christian people everywhere. Secondly, the prayer of the church on earth is united with the prayer of the church in heaven, so that when we pray, heaven and earth come together and the church on earth—you and me—join our prayers with the church in heaven. Thirdly, and probably most importantly of all, the scriptures [Romans 8:26, 8:15] say that when we do not have the words to say, the Spirit himself comes and cries within us, prays within us, crying out, “Abba,” Father.
As Christians, we believe that God is a community of persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—so within God there is community. When we pray, we are joining in with that. There is a strength and a solace to know that you are participating in something much bigger than yourself, and it’s not dependent on how you feel, it’s not dependent upon your eloquence or getting the right formula.
Some of us give up on prayer. But prayer is not about us having to tune in to the elusive God. Prayer is what God does in and through us, through the Spirit. My definition of prayer is “the lover coming into the presence of the beloved and saying, ‘I love you.’ ” And, of course, the lover is God. God is the one who takes the initiative. We are the beloved.
Probably the most important prayer of all is to say, “Thank you.” A Sunday school teacher once observed to me, “Have you noticed that adults’ prayers always begin with the word ‘please,’ and children’s prayers always begin with the words ‘thank you’?” I thought that was a very powerful observation—that we tend to come to God with a “please” on our lips—you know, “Please, God, will you do this, will you do that.” There’s perhaps a kind of hidden agenda there—that we secretly think that we could do a better job of running the universe than God can. But prayer is not about us trying to change God’s mind—it’s about being open that God might change our mind.
Do people sometimes find it hard to pray because they think there’s a right and wrong way?
Oh yes, they definitely do. And usually give up therefore. In my experience, they expect it to be either a kind of ecstatic, “mountaintop” experience, or there’s some set formulas that need to be done. I’m a great fan of the formulas, if by that we mean the ancient liturgies of the church which have been passed down. These are of huge and enriching value. But some wise person—I can’t remember who—said, “Pray the way you can, not the way you can’t.” The real secret is to find out what’s the way of praying that’s right for you. For some people, the set liturgy and the set prayers will be really appropriate. For others, it would be the last thing they should be doing. It would be much better if they took the dog for a walk and, as it were, ruminated with God as they walked.
The biblical passage you cited earlier [Romans 8:26] refers to prayer as “groanings which cannot be uttered.”
Well, another wise person said, “Wanting to pray is praying.” In other words, desire is the heart of prayer. The desire for God, the desire for love, the desire to be loved. The desire to know God’s will. That is prayer. I think the other passage from Scripture that rattles around my head is Paul to the Thessalonians, where he says, “Pray all the time” [Thessalonians, 5:17]. Which is an extremely irritating thing to say! But I think it’s worth reflecting on. What does Paul mean? I think he can’t mean, “Do that activity that we call prayer all the time.” If that was the case, he manifestly didn’t do it himself. I think it must mean, “Make your life a prayer.” Make your life an offering of thanks and praise to God.
Why is thankfulness the most important thing?
Because it’s a dynamic to live by which, I guess, changes everything. If somebody takes me to a nice restaurant for a fantastic meal, I know how to be thankful. At least, I hope I do! But do I know how to be thankful every time I turn on the tap? Every time I make a cup of tea? Every time I breathe? What a life it would be, if you could take every breath with that measure of thankfulness of what it means. I think it’s a dynamic thing, that the more thankful you are, the more you live passionately and joyfully in every moment, seeing God in everything, in every person—and I can’t think of a greater revolution, really, than that.
How would you describe the importance of prayer to the church and to the world?
As breathing is for the human person, so prayer is for the church. Oh no, more than that, actually. As love is for human flourishing, so prayer is for the church’s flourishing.
The job of the church is to change the world, so it will better enable us to do what we’re meant to be doing. Perhaps we need to better share the spiritual riches and resources of the Christian tradition. I think they are beautiful, and the more we live those out ourselves, the better that serves the world.
This interview first appeared on July 13, 2018.