In the newest Christian Century (July 1, 2008) there is a wonderful article by Sarah Coakley--a professor at Cambridge after having taught at Harvard, and an associate rector in Anglican parishes in Massachusetts and Littlemore, Oxfordshire--called "The Vicar at Prayer." It is directed primarily to English Anglican priests--"pastors to the nation"--but there is much ecumenical wisdom and urgency as regards "the disciplined long-haul life of prayer, of ongoing personal and often painful transformation."
Coakley contends that while prayer is the work of all God's people, the pastor must lead in this work, "the clergy putting this task first in their hierarchy of 'business.'" She quotes Evenlyn Underhill, a letter to Archbishop Lang on the eve of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, that "the greatest and most necessary work (Lambeth) could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently, to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer...God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend him."
Without the "daily public witness of a clergy engaged, manifestly and accountably, alongside their people" in this work, "the church at large runs the danger of losing its fundamental direction and meaning." In sum, "The loss of disciplined clerical prayer in a busy age is fatal: for the priest herself, for her people, for ecumenical relations and even for national life. Its absence is--quietly but corrosively--devastating."
It is in prayer, Coakley says, we truly discover who the poor are--and not as a theoretical discernment from the position of privilege. And through prayer we are invested--in that we invest ourselves and, I suppose, God invests us--in our various places of service. The North American penchant to mobility (evidenced not only in parishioners but also in clergy, either by self-promotion or as a result of systemic expectation) deadens our commitment to our places of service and the people who dwell there. There is a deep truth there I think that needs to be sounded: that only prayer unites us to a place. Only prayer unites us to a people. Not program, not stuff, but prayer, and that because prayer unites us to the One who is creator of every place and God of every heart.
These are dark days for me in many ways. But even this week I have seen the clouds part a little, by the grace of disciplined prayer. God's well is deep, but I have too much in my hands to take up my bucket and draw. For long months now I have been parched of spirit and have turned only to the dried and rusty taps of institution and old aggrievement. Prayer, manifest and accountable, is the uncorroded bucket which allows me to come again to the fountain of living water instead of to a mere memory of moisture in the broken cisterns of my own spirit.
God, grant me the grace, the zeal and faith, to pray with my people in this place. Nothing but this "greatest and most necessary work" has power to at the present time to renew the spirit of the United Methodist Church and its clergy, or at least let me say this United Methodist church and its clergy.