Prayer and the Renewal of Religious Life

by Graham Kings

Date added: 28/07/2023

Prayer and the Renewal of Religious Life

by Graham Kings,

A Response to Nelson Bako’s paper

‘The Foundation of Prayer at the Heart of Melanesian Religious Life’

at the Theological Education for Mission in the Anglican Communion conference

St Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya, 29 May – 1 June 2019

Muthuraj Swamy and Stephen Spencer (eds), Listening Together: Global Anglican Perspectives on the Renewal of Prayer and Religious Life (Anglican Communion Office, 2020), pp. 136-139.

 

I am very grateful indeed to Brother Nelson for his invigorating paper and greatly enjoyed his overview of prayer as the foundation and heart of his community, the Melanesian Brotherhood. ‘Foundation and Heart’ has a marvellous Pauline ring to it: a mixed metaphor of building and nature similar to ‘rooted and grounded in love’ in Ephesians 3:17. Indeed his whole paper is imbued with Ephesian resonances, including persecution.

Another phrase at the start, ‘living the life of God’ is an evocative opening line which manifests the concept of dwelling ‘in Christ’ (Ephesians 1) and ‘being filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5).

‘To be connected with God is to live a life of prayer’ is a fine summary phrase for mission as well as prayer, in an age of connectivity. When I was vicar of St Mary’s Islington, London, 2000-2009, our strap line was ‘Connecting people with God’. We are ‘the connecting people’ – similar to Saint John Paul II’s phrase, ‘we are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song’[1] – and we are called to ‘connect people with God’.

The chapter also uses a good organic metaphor that ‘prayer is the generator of life’ in the Brotherhood. Generator can be used in two senses. First, ‘generator’ is similar to the word ‘begotten’ in the Nicene Creed, where it is contrasted with ‘not made’. It is continuing and eternal, not ‘one off’. Second, it conjures up an electricity generator, which resonates with prayer being the empowering for life, which indeed ‘drives the mission forward.’

The Brotherhood’s focus on the daily Eucharist for intercession for unity, mission and brokenness is moving. Its commitment to the seven daily Office times of prayer are impressively and cumulatively enriching.

Nelson accompanies and expounds the Brotherhood’s triple vocation of prayer, study and the service of sharing the gospel with the triple characteristic values of humility (hospitality), love (costly forgiveness in the gun amnesty) and joy (singing and dancing) and relates them to the triple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Pope Francis’s first Apostolic Exhortation linked the Gospel and joy in its title, Evangelii Gaudium.[2]

The Gospel narratives come alive in this paper. The joy resulting from mission in simplicity, and prayer for a woman in labour, replicates the return of the disciples in Luke 10:17-21: ‘The seventy returned with joy… At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.’

The tragic murder of seven brothers by a rebel leader, Harold Keke, in 2003 echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:16-24: ‘See I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves…When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…A disciple is not above the teacher.’ During the concluding Eucharist of the Lambeth Conference 2008, the Melanesian Brothers carried a boat down the nave of Canterbury Cathedral in memory of their beloved seven.

The significance of a daily time of silent prayer in the life of the Brothers cannot be overestimated. In the Church of Kenya’s Morning Prayer, a prayer is provided after a period of silence:

Your silence is full, irresistible;

your presence is joy, unspeakable.

People drifting into mind

we lift to you and pray they find

                  health in sickness,

                  life in deadness,

                  strength in weakness,

                  light in darkness.

            Their loss you bear, mysteriously;

            your peace you share, eternally.[3]

Nelson concludes his paper with the beautiful Melanesian prayer: ‘Be good to me O God, for the sea is wide and deep and my canoe is so small’. It reminds me of the coracle - a small wicker boat of stretched raw hide – which Colum Cille (St Columba) used to cross the Irish sea, from Ireland to Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, with a small group of relatives and followers in 563 AD. Colum, the pioneer Celtic missionary to Scotland, died in 597 AD, the same year that St Augustine, the pioneer Catholic missionary, sent by Pope Gregory the Great, arrived by boat in Kent, England. A wonderful sea-borne, pincer, missionary movement of God.

During a Church Mission Society conference in the late 1990s, which took Colum’s coracle as its theme, I wrote the following prayer, which draws on scenes in the four Gospels concerning boats and the sea.[4]

Lord Jesus Christ,

teacher on the shore

         who calls and overwhelms us,

friend in the boat

         who sleeps and saves us,

mystery on the water

         who prays and surprises us,

stranger on the other shore,

         who rises to welcome us,

guide our coracle across. Amen.[5]

One of the key leaders of renewal in the religious life of England was St Dunstan, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury 959-988 AD. He was also a monk, musician, illuminator and metalworker: Bezalel, in Exodus 31:1-5, comes to mind.[6]

Previously he had been Abbot of Glastonbury, where he instituted a strict Benedictine Rule and made it a centre of learning, Bishop of Worcester and Bishop of London. Dunstan worked together with his two monk friends, St AEthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and St Oswald, (of Danish ancestry), Bishop of Worcester and later Archbishop of York. Under the patronage of Dunstan’s admirer, King Edgar, the three friends inaugurated a continentally inspired reform of English monasteries.

Dunstan had emigrated to St Peter’s Ghent in Flanders for two years and had experienced the reform of Benedictine life there. Oswald had lived for most of the 950s in the reformed Benedictine monastery in Fleury, France.[7] Travel influences reform at home and key friendships can inspire renewal of religious life across a country.[8]

The Bodleian Library at Oxford has Dunstan’s Classbook, which includes his sketch of himself falling at the feet of Christ and his own handwriting in which, in an erudite Latin verse couplet, he begs for Christ’s protection. Joseph Galgalo and Muthuraj Swamy saw it with me when we visited the extraordinary exhibition at the British Library (Oct 2018 - Feb 2019), ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.’ [9]

Just as silent prayer is key to the life of the Melanesian Brotherhood, so Dunstan loved silent contemplation in the monastery. Since we are often surrounded by the distraction of Twitter and the noise of traffic, I finish with the final verse of poem about humility, profundity and silence, written after the visit of a modern successor of Dunstan.

Silence brings

peace amidst chatter;

stillness amongst clatter;

essence at the end of incessence;

space for God’s eloquence.[10]

 

 

[1] ‘We are the Easter People and Alleluia is our song’, John Paul II, Angelus: Apostolic Journey to the Far East and Oceania Angelus, Adelaide, 30 Nov 1986.

2 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Rome: Vatican Press, 2014). For a perceptive Anglican review of it, see Philip Seddon, ‘Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel’ on Fulcrum https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/evangelii-gaudium%E2%80%A8the-joy-of-the-gospel/

3 Anglican Church of Kenya, Our Modern Services (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1991), p. 23 and Our Modern Services (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 2002), p. 15.

4 Graham Kings, ‘Coracle Prayer’ in Mission Theological Advisory Group, Transparencies: Pictures of Mission through Prayer and Reflection’ (London: Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2002), p. 40. This is a companion book to Mission Theological Advisory Group, Presence and Prophecy: a Heart for Mission in Theological Education (London: Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2002). https://www.grahamkings.org/poem/boat-prayer/

5 ‘The Lord spoke to  Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise  artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.’ Exodus 31:1-5.

6 John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 350-353. Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), pp. 446-462.

7 Chemin Neuf, a Roman Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation, was founded in Lyon, France, and has inspired the founding of the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Justin Welby.

8 The beautiful book of the exhibition is Claire Breay and Joanna Story (eds), Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (London: British Library, 2018). Dunstan’s Classbook is pp. 284-5 and there is a portrait of King Edgar flanked by St Aethelwold and St Dunstan on p. 288, illustrating the Regularis Concordia (‘The Monastic Agreement’). This manuscript in the British Library is from the mid 10th century and is a copy of the original code of monastic observance drawn up and approved at the Synod of Winchester in the early 970s.

9 Graham Kings, ‘Visit of Holiness’, Fulcrum Nov 2003, after the visit of Archbishop Rowan Williams to St Mary Islington https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/visit-of-holiness/ https://www.grahamkings.org/poem/visit-of-holiness-rowan/

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Graham Kings

Graham Kings

 
 
Wood panel

A bronze

Interweavings

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