The director of communications for the Church of England explains this weekend’s “Twitter Storm” of controversy after the C of E tweeted a prayer for Professor Richard Dawkins, the well-known secular atheist who has suffered a minor stroke.
On Friday evening a simple tweet was sent from the Church of England twitter account.
The tweet was a prayer. Nothing controversial in that. In recent months a regular diet of prayer has been evident on the church’s twitter stream. From the events in Paris to the floods, prayers for the official marking of Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th Birthday. Since the beginning of the month daily prayers have been tweeted on the theme of exploring vocations to all kind of ministry in the Church.
And then there was Friday’ evening’s tweet. A tweet responding to a news report in the Independent that Professor Richard Dawkins had suffered a stroke. The tweet said “Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family”.
The response was a twitter row.
Many recognised the tweet for what it was, a genuine tweet offering prayer for a public person who was unwell. As @bloonface noted: “Under the assumption that the Church of England isn’t a hospital, what more would you like them to do?”
Others attacked the church for “trolling” Dawkins suggesting the prayer was intended as an attack or sarcastic comment. One author and comedian suggested we were “taking the p**s”. One news site even suggested that by offering to pray for Dawkins of all people the bishops controlling the account had clearly “been at the sherry”.
What is clear in some of the responses is a misunderstanding of what prayer is, who does it and who it is for.
What is it?
On the justpray.uk site launched by the Church of England in November of last year the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell writes:
“Praying can be woven into everyday life. Prayer is not just something done in church. It is about praying with others, praying alone, at any time and any place. It is living life in a relationship with God. When we pray, there are millions of Christian people all around the world also praying; daily in churches, in their own homes, in their cars, at work. You might not hear them. You might feel very alone in your prayer; but you are not alone.There is no such thing as private prayer because when we pray we are caught up in something much bigger than ourselves. There is no “my” prayer. It is, as the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer states, “our”.”
Who is it for?
Prayer is for everyone. Last week on Ash Wednesday the Church of England launched a series of videos exploring prayer and struggle. The “Psalm 22 project” features men and women who found faith at a homeless centre. The five film stars have all recently come to faith through the Saturday Gathering, a fresh expression of church in Halifax and most have experienced crime, alcohol, drug addiction, homelessness or violence in their lives. Prayer, struggle and doubt run through all of their stories.
As Emma, whose story launched the series, says: “Having faith is really hard. It’s not easy to pray when you think no one is listening, it’s not easy to wake up knowing you’re going to go through the same stuff every single day.” Each of the inspirational stories of those who star in the films is a reminder of how faith and prayer can turn life around.
Who Does it?
Some of the twitter reaction assumed that Christians only pray for other Christians. In fact, Christians pray for all kinds of people. They pray for their friends and families. They pray for their community. They pray for the Government (of whatever persuasion). They pray for terrorists, kidnappers, hostage takers. They pray for criminals as well as giving thanks for saints. Poets write poetry, musicians play music, Christians pray. And they love.
Jesus was pretty clear about this. In Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel he is recorded as saying: “You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The prayer tweeted on Friday evening was for Richard Dawkins. It’s hardly surprising that I don’t agree with all of his views (viz his most recent tweet on Dan Walker [a Christian chosen as a new presenter of BBC Breakfast]). But there is a danger of reducing him to a one trick pony. His views are more nuanced that both supporters and detractors would usually acknowledge. At the end of last year Prof Dawkins publicly voiced his support for the Church of England when our “Lord’s Prayer” advert was banned by cinemas in the UK.
Any suggestion that Christians do anything other than hate Professor Dawkins utterly confuses those who think in binary terms. Few would appreciate that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, hosted Richard Dawkins and his wife at a party at Lambeth Palace in 2007. “There’s something about his swashbuckling side which is endearing,” said Archbishop Williams, saying of Richard and Lalla “they were absolutely delightful.”
I wish Professor Dawkins well. I hope he makes swift and full recovery and wish him the best of health. I will pray for him too. It is the very least I can do.
The Revd Arun Arora is Director of Communications for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.