06 Aug

God, what a prayer!

Can you imagine, even for half a minute, anyone actually sitting down and composing this:

God, you are the Father of all the families of the earth,
and call the nations to live in peace and unity.
We remember with sorrow the devastating destruction and death
unleashed on this day upon the city of Hiroshima,
and later upon the city of Nagasaki.
We pray for the people of Japan,
and all whose lives are disfigured by war.
We pray for ourselves,
the often unwise stewards of the powers of the universe.
Transfigure the lives and cities scarred by conflict
by the revealing of your glory
and move us by your uncreated energies
to advance your sovereign purpose of peace.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ,
our light and our salvation.

It is the Church of England’s official prayer for Hiroshima. What a nerve they must have to talk to God like that! The first line is at best offensive and at worst blasphemous. Notice, the utter lack of reverence, the failure to indicate the great inequality that separates our existence from God’s existence. The eternal maker of all that there is, the sun, the moon and the stars is addressed in a perfunctory manner. What upstart could think to begin speaking to the Almighty with, “God, you…”? You wouldn’t talk to a dog like that.

The model for formal prayers is the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer, and no one trying to frame words of thanksgiving or petition can afford to ignore the Collects, masterpieces in miniature all of them. The first thing to notice about the Collects is that they establish a proper courtesy by regarding God as infinitely greater than ourselves; “Almighty and ever-living God…” for instance. “O Lord and everlasting Father…” Or “Blessed Lord…”

Next the Collects do not presume to tell God his business; “God, you.” God’s activities are referred to by means of subordinate clauses: “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” To say the least, this is astonishingly beautiful. It is also polite. How would the illiterate, self-elevating thug who produced the prayer for Hiroshima have begun that Collect of thanksgiving for the Scriptures?

We know, because he has himself provided the model: “God, you wrote the Bible.” And then the prayer is a confusion of notions and sentiments with heavy words all rushing together: “families…nations…peace…unity…sorrow” and so on, so that the worshipper is not helped to focus attention on a theme.

And what is the sentiment of the prayer? This – insofar as it exists – is evasive and imprecise. I can imagine someone sincerely writing that we remember Hiroshima with penitence – because he believes we were wrong to drop the bomb. I can imagine someone else praying, “We remember with thanksgiving” – because the dropping of the bomb shortened the war and saved many lives. But sorrow only reveals the prayer as muddled, inarticulate and indecisive.

And – because the bomb was dropped on the Feast of the Transfiguration – there is this cack-handed attempt to weave together banal contrasts: disfigure, transfigure, powers of the universe, uncreated energies.

Just when you think the church’s liturgists couldn’t get any worse, they discover new depths of incompetence whereby God is insulted and mocked.