Space, Time, Prayer and Cranmer

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage

Mandy Ford

I don’t even pretend to understand the physics of space-time. But I do understand the concept of time perception, because I experience it every day, just like you. And I’m finding that my perception of time has been doing some very interesting things in the past few days.

Psychologists tell us that time appears to stretch when there is a lot going on and it does seem hard to believe that it is only a matter of days since we closed the doors of Southwark cathedral. We have been busy! We’ve had to make decisions about live streaming; managing funerals; worship and teaching in Holy Week, just for starters. And many of those decisions have been changed more than once as the guidance shaping them has changed in turn.

And yet, as a colleague observed, while there seems to be a lot to do in responding to this new situation, there is also a sense that there is less to do, and so time seems generously available in ways that we don’t normally experience. With fewer meetings and less urgency about some activities, life is beginning to take on a different pace. We pray together an hour later than usual, which means more time in the morning or a bit of a lie-in. The importance of getting fresh air and exercise means a break mid afternoon for a walk, jog or cycle. There is time for a phone call to a family member or friend before supper.

Many of us are recovering the ancient monastic wisdom of routine in every day life, shaping the day around prayer, refreshment, and work – with the work perhaps taking on a different quality and becoming more mindful as well. And in times of anxiety, it is good to remember the practice of the present moment, stopping to breathe and take account of the world around us when there is any danger of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear.

Time (and space) has collapsed in another way as I’ve been more conscious of sharing the experience of Christians across history and across the world, for whom fear has been, or is, an integral part of every day life. And so I found myself thinking about the words of prayer and comfort we turn to instinctively at such times.

On 21 March, the Church of England remembered Thomas Cranmer the author of the Book of Common Prayer, whose words have nurtured Christians in Britain and around the Anglican Communion for centuries. While Cranmer wrote the English prayer book in times of crisis, responding to the needs of the Church of England suddenly severed from Roman Catholic structures by Henry VIII’s urgent need of an heir, it took over a hundred years before the Book of Common Prayer became the established prayer book of the Church in England. Since that time they have been read, learned and prayed, through war and civil disturbance, plague and fire, through times when the church was barely functioning and through the great Victorian Evangelical and Catholic revivals.

While we may chose to put aside some of its provision – I have never been asked in my twenty years of parish ministry to “church” a woman after childbirth for example – the Prayer Book remains a masterpiece of Anglican compromise. By providing words for prayer, but not instructions about how they are to be used, Cranmer enabled Anglicans of many different persuasions to pray together, and preserve a sense of collective identity through the idea that what we pray is what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).

Prayer book language matters not only for church goers, as Cranmer’s beautiful poetic prose echoes in our daily language whenever we use those little phrases; “dust to dust” “miserable sinners”, “the face of the enemy”, “vile bodies”, “the secrets of our hearts”.

We are called upon to proclaim the gospel afresh to every generation and it has been exciting to observe the plentiful demonstrations of the hashtag #newwaysofbeingchurch, as colleagues respond to this new situation. At the moment we are sharing online morning prayer in Southwark with as many as thirty people, many more than join us in the cathedral each morning! But, I’m conscious as we do this, of the telescoping of time, as we draw on deep wells of tradition, maintaining the rhythm of prayer that is hundreds of years old.

So, for those of us who long for the Church of England to do new things for LGBTI+ people in our communities and churches, through and beyond Living in Love and Faith, what might feel different for us in the coming months?

When we meet again, will we be frustratedly straining at the starting blocks, wanting to make up for “lost time”? Or will our enforced period of spiritual and physical retreat hone our sense of history and our capacity for patience?

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Any thoughts?