Back to publications
Power and Prayer:
The history, theory and psychology of intercession.
Introduction: The Three Horizons of Intercession
The purpose of this booklet is to offer a series of linked reflections about intercessory prayer. Theologically speaking, the Eucharistic liturgy itself could be described as intercessory. In most Eucharist prayers there is some form of request that God would transform not just the elements but also those who partake of them. But I will be referring in particular to the type of prayer that many Christians would recognize as that part of a typical Church of England service called ‘the intercessions’.
For many Christians today, intercession poses first and fore-most philosophical problems. Interceding in prayer on behalf of others can raise puzzling questions about the agency and justice of God. This is especially true as many of us naturally tend to work with a rather Deist picture of God. God is often popularly seen as One who appears to stand outside of the self-contained, almost mechanistic, laws of nature and who ‘steps in’ only infrequently. In the following reflections though, I want to side-step such issues in order to clarify other factors at work in intercession that make it, despite its intellectual puzzlement, nevertheless such a potentially powerful practice.
I wish to broaden the subject by assuming that properly we could say that intercession takes place at the coincidence of three ‘horizons’. The first horizon is God’s, who is conventionally understood as the recipient of, and respondent to, prayer. The second horizon I assume is that of the subject(s) of the prayers (those in need, the sick, etc.). The third horizon I suggest is made up of those who are praying. Together these three horizons constitute intercession.
Study of the first horizon (God) is naturally the domain of theologians, but this horizon will not directly be the subject of this booklet. The second horizon (concerning the subjects of prayer) has also received examination - with mixed results. For example, very recently a number of studies have set out to assess in strictly controlled scientific trials the efficacy of intercessory prayer for its subjects. In one 1999 study, of 1013 cardiac patients those in the prayed-for group were less likely to suffer further health complications after their initial treatment than those in a control group. This was despite the fact that neither patients nor staff knew that an experiment in prayer was being conducted. A similar study showed that patients with AIDS who were prayed for had fewer new illnesses, required fewer medical visits and spent less time in hospital than those who were not knowingly prayed for. On the other hand no statistically significant benefits were noted in studies of recovering alcoholics, sufferers of depression or those with warts who received prayer. Skeptics have, though, raised serious questions about the validity of such trials. How would such studies screen out ‘background prayer’? Is the free action of God susceptible to statistical analysis? Can God be isolated from Creation in the first place?
It is however the third horizon that this study primarily focuses upon: those who do the praying. I will start this study by situating intercessory prayer in its historical and theological context. By doing this I am seeking in particular to show the importance of the perception of the power of intercession for the status of the intercessor(s). (This is in addition to any benefits prayer might bring to those being prayed for). Next, with the help of two literary theories (reader-response theory and speech-act analysis) I will attempt to examine how power might be said to be ‘contained’ and ‘transmitted’ in the very structure of intercessory prayer. Lastly, in the light of cognitive psychological thought, I will seek to explore how the power of intercessory prayer might affect those who pray.
I: History and Theology
Jewish and Early Christian Roots
The prayers of intercession have a peculiarly unstable history. In the Church of England’s present Eucharistic rite the intercessory prayers are located at the end of the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Sacrament. This division between the two parts of the service, and the location of the intercessions within them, probably stems from the original separation of the two liturgies. The Acts of the Apostles, for example, appears to describe the early Jerusalem church meeting daily both in the Temple (probably for the three hours of prayer) and also ‘at home’ collectively ‘breaking the bread’ (Acts 2:46 - 3:1). Outside of Jerusalem, where synagogues substituted for the Temple, Christians most likely supplemented their Jewish prayer meetings with more private celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. This early plurality of rituals typically reflected the liminal state of the Christian movement as a sect emerging from mainstream Judaism.
It is likely that only when Christians left, or were expelled from, the synagogues that the two meetings coalesced. The position of the intercessions as we now recognize them as an element in the Liturgy of the Word possibly indicates the continuation of the pattern and content of the original synagogue service. Although Jewish meetings for worship were (and still are) typified by the presence of prayers throughout, one section in particular, the Amidah (‘standing’), also called Tefillah (‘The prayer’) bears nearest resemblance in position and form to the Christian prayers of intercession. Indeed the practice of standing for prayer in the Amidah appears to have been continued in early Christian intercession (e.g. Mark 11:25).
The practice of prayer in the synagogue and in the early Church can be understood best when set in the context of the Scriptures. Throughout the Hebrew Bible intercessory prayer is perceived as having a powerful effect. Several stories tell of requests by individuals and groups for a particular figure (e.g. Moses and Elijah), or the whole people to intercede with God on their behalf. For example after the exile, in 520 BC, when the Persian ruler Darius issued a decree for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, he explicitly requested that prayer be offered there for both him and his children (Ezra 6: 6-12). In the New Testament, too, petitionary prayer boasts enormous effects: ‘whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’ (NRSV Mark 11:24). Indeed the central Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, is almost entirely intercessory.
When reflecting on the source of the power of intercessory prayer, the first Christian writers inevitably saw in such prayer God’s own hand at work. For Paul it is God’s Spirit who within the pray-er ‘intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express’ (NIV Romans 8:26). At the same time Paul asserts that the risen Christ also ‘intercedes for us’ (8:34). This latter point is reinforced in chapter 17 of John’s Gospel and by the author of Hebrews (7:25), both in priestly vein. Taken as a whole, our intercession would seem to be powerful when it finds its synchronization with God’s will. There appears then, in embryonic form, a Trinitarian framework to intercessory prayer.
Yet if intercessory prayer could be perceived as powerful, then it might also be considered dangerous. Let us briefly return to the example given above of King Darius’ request for prayer. As the writer of Ezra tells the story, Darius’ decree appears generously to repeat Cyrus’ forgotten instructions to re-build the Jerusalem temple. Apparently only as an after-thought does the decree include the request that the Jewish priests ‘offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king, and his children’ (NRSV Ezra 6:10). So just who is benefiting from this charitable act of rebuilding? The benefits to the writer of Ezra are plain. But Darius’ charity might not have been altogether altruistic. From the Persian point of view one might say that the Jerusalem temple was being allowed to be re-built (indeed despite suspicions aired by the regional governor that sedition was afoot) but at the significant price of the creation of a Jewish liturgy celebrating and interceding on behalf of what was in fact a usurping and fragile Persian dynasty. Significantly, Persia was on the verge of declaring war on Egypt and needed a stable Judea. Given the strong ties between religion and politics at the time this would perhaps have meant that in a key geo-political area, a cult once focused upon the memory of its own independent (Davidic) dynasty instead now loyally prayed for a Persian monarch. In this context attention may be drawn to the fact that Haggai’s hero, Zerubbabel (last of the Davidic dynasty and royal ‘signet ring’ of YHWH, Haggai 2:23) curiously drops out of recorded history, and out of Ezra’s text, at precisely the point when Darius’ benevolent decree is issued.
Whatever the finer details, intercessory prayer here thus appears in some way to be related to power of a quite recognizable form: political power. The tempering and channeling of the power of intercession finds its echo in later approaches to corporate petitionary prayer. Philo, for example, advertised to the Roman world the ‘religious veneration of the Jews for the Augustan house’ among the Diaspora synagogues. Intercessory prayer could thus be an important signal of loyalty performed by a religion otherwise considered potentially subversive given its refusal to participate in the cult of the Roman Emperor.  Yet at the same time a certain ambiguity remains. Given that Jews and Christians prayed for the emperor, but not to him, intercessory prayer could suggest the relativization of the power of the empire. When the final act of those Christians who were publicly martyred was to pray on Caesar’s behalf, rather than to worship him, what powerful effect might this have had on the spectators and their view of the world? Reapplying John Howard Yoder’s concept of ‘revolutionary subordination’, Walter Wink has argued that while ‘rebellion simply acknowledges the absoluteness and ultimacy of the emperor’s powers and attempts to seize it. Prayer denies that ultimacy altogether by acknowledging a higher power’.
This potentially revolutionary connection between prayer and power can clearly be seen in the first Christian intercession. An early apocalyptic ferment (the hope that God would radically break into history and disrupt the social and political status quo) certainly appears to have been present in some Christian communities. In part this is seen in the evidence of relics such as the apocalyptic Aramaic petitionary prayer Maranatha (‘Come Lord’), and indeed in the Lord’s Prayer itself (‘May your kingdom come’). In fact such sentiments seem not to have been merely aspirational. Social reconstructions of some early Christian groups (based on a hypothetical early creed lying behind Galatians 3:28 and other similar texts) would seem to indicate that there were various Spirit-inspired social experiments being conducted in the ancient world. These may well have involved radical new forms of counter-cultural living, including the re-writing of gender roles along more egalitarian lines, all inspired by the belief that history was nearing its end. For these groups the ability to appeal in prayer directly to the divine put them in touch with an entirely other way of living.
Policing Prayer: Paul and After
It is in the context of such modern historical reconstructions of certain forms of early Christianity that it is probably best to interpret Paul’s tailoring of Christian intercessory prayer. Take his correspondence with the Christians at Corinth. Whilst praising them for holding fast to the traditions he handed on to them concerning male and female active involvement in conducting prayer and prophesy, Paul nevertheless attempted to impose order on their worship. The interpretation is notoriously difficult. However his injunctions against men praying with covered heads (or, possibly, with long hair) and women praying with heads uncovered (1 Cor. 11:4-5) are probably most convincingly understood as attempts to rein in a charismatically inspired belief that the End was near, if not already present. Such a belief may have thrown into question the continuance of gender distinctions (1 Cor. 11:2-16). In their claims to be living in the Spirit and to be able to experience God’s power already directly in prayer and prophesy, Paul may have feared that the Corinthians’ freedom might attract adverse public notice. Taken at their most benevolent, his commands seem to be set within the wider concern that Christians might ‘give no offence to Jews or to Greeks’ (1 Cor. 10:32). Nevertheless, the Corinthians’ activities indicate the possibility of a powerful link between participation in public intercession and social re-ordering.
More particular regulation is evidenced in 1 Timothy. There the manner, and even the very content of Christian intercession, is spelled out so as to restrict the potential danger of communal intercessory prayer. It is a passage worth quoting in full.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth...
I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (NRSV 1 Tim. 2:1-4, 8-15).
Implied here are multiple consequences. First, intercessory prayer is presumed to effect the divine gift of peace on earth. Second, it is also felt to affect the perception of the Christian pray-ers by the wider society. These concerns echo the sentiments of 1 Corinthians and indeed repeat, albeit more crudely, an Adam and Eve analogy used there and the injunction to female silence (1 Cor. 10:32, 11:7-9 and 14:34-5). The writer of 1 Timothy is obviously concerned to respond to public questions such as ‘what sort of people are these Christians?’ and ‘how do they conduct themselves?’ with safe answers so that none might be excluded by scandal from salvation. Therefore he goes on to state the necessity of regulating intercessory prayer, linking it to the command to let no woman have ‘authority’ over men, and for male pray-ers to be peaceable with one another. The author’s strictures are revealing. Clearly he perceives that to lead intercessory prayer is for the pray-er to occupy a position of power, or perhaps simply to aspire to such a position. This would make sense of his regulations against women donning expensive clothes (which might raise their social profile) and against men arguing (presumably over status).
In all then, intercession appears to have been considered to have required a degree of control so that its potential for threatening late Roman patriarchy would be lessened and the Christian community might thereby remain more unobtrusive. Public prayer might entail a host of problems. The pray-er might be consumed by enthusiasm or self-delusion. The ‘audience/participants’ might be swayed by rhetorical effect. The wider society might be shocked at hierarchies of social order and rules of divine access being flouted. Most importantly the State might fear an autonomous apocalyptic sect. Later Christian leaders therefore continued in the same conservative vein. In his Apology, Tertullian dripped respectability:
we are constantly praying for all Emperors; our prayers are that their life be abundant, that the empire be secure, that their house be safe, that the armies be strong, their Senate faithful, the people reliable, the world peaceful...
We have then a picture of a society which strongly believed in intercession’s power to effect change. To return to my three-horizon model: prayers entered into the horizon of God and through God’s response the horizon of the subject of the prayers was altered. But simultaneously, in the third horizon, the status of the pray-er(s) was potentially exalted.
With the increasing social standing of the Christian religion there came about an attempt to gradually standardize, codify and professionalize intercessory prayer. Within a short period of time prayer seems to have become increasingly led by leaders of an ordained élite. There are no written intercessory prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 350-80) which may indicate the lack of any standard form and perhaps even that they were not entirely clergy-led. But in the Orationes Sollemnes, which were in use in Rome until the end of the fifth century, the form of the intercessions appears to have become highly ordered. The wording is prescribed and the prayers were to be led by an ordained officiant. Intercessions were made for the integrity of the Church, the pope (or local bishop, papa nostro), all Christian ministers, catechumens (who were at this time expelled before the celebration of the Eucharist), as well as for the sick, travellers and prisoners. Yet the prayers also dwelt upon subjects of social order and conformity, mentioning the ‘Most Christian Emperor’s’ subjugation of barbarian nations, the release of heretics and schismatics from diabolical deception, the freeing of the Jews from their ignorance, and for pagans’ relinquishing of idolatry.
Within the continuum of the history of Christian intercessory prayers, by this time the content, the form, and the manner in which they were conducted, indicate the culmination of tendencies already present within the Pauline and post-Pauline letters. They also evidently reflect a close new relationship between Church and State after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Of course, a capacity for ‘revolutionary subordination’ might have remained. Perhaps such formal intercession did implicitly challenge the ultimate power of the State by pointing to the more powerful God behind the emperor. And even if the awareness of this challenge was lost in the encroaching formality, perhaps more informal extempore public intercession with certain revolutionary tendencies did sometimes continue. Whether it did is difficult to say, particularly as of its nature informal corporate petitionary prayer would probably have left little written record.
The Medieval and Reformation Periods
In the Late Antique Roman Catholic world the last evidence for formal intercessions occurring after the homily is dated to 478. Under Pope Galasius (AD 492-6) lay corporate intercessory prayer was almost entirely eclipsed. With the exception of Holy Week, the intercessions were transformed into an entry procession (modeled on a non-intercessory Byzantine rite) and relocated at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word. The Deprecatio Gelasii reduced intercession to a brief responsorial litany with no room even for silent lay prayer. From the sixth-century even this disappeared. For a while the notion of lay intercessory prayer retained a toehold in the Eucharistic celebration in the form of the diptychs (originally lists of the donors of the Eucharistic bread, and later names of catechumens, the sick and the departed). These lists were read from by the celebrant or deacon during the Eucharist. With the rise of silent eucharistic celebration and the increased architectural distance between laity and clergy one imagines that even this declined in significance. Intercession did though find a renewed outlet from the ninth century onwards in England, for example, in the vernacular bidding of the bedes (and in Northern Europe more widely such prayers were a part of Prone). These clergy-led prayers were conducted after the sermon. To each bidding prayer the laity responded with an Our Father. Over time though the bedes became longer and more formal.
Intercession continued however to be perceived as a powerful action as is evidenced by its treatment during and after the Reformation. One of the central concerns of the Reformers was the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Thus a potentially subversive complex of prayer, priesthood and power was expressly stated by Luther in his Freedom of the Christian:
we are priests, and thus greater than mere kings, the reason being that priesthood makes us worthy to stand before God, and to pray for others. For to stand and pray before God’s face is the prerogative of none except priests. By virtue of their kingship, [Christians] exercise authority over all things. By virtue of their priesthood, they exercise power with God. For God does what they ask and desire.
Here we see the powerful inherent critique of world-orders involved in intercessory prayer, a critique which explains the shape intercession was given in Post Reformation England. Though the new prayer books did reinstate much intercessory prayer (e.g. Cranmer’s litany and the Prayer for the Church Militant) the form it took remained rather like the Orationes Sollemnes and the Deprecatio Galasii: priest-led, penitential in feel, and emphatic of social order.
Unofficial bedes were retained in many services, but these too were the subject of repeated attempts by monarchs from Henry VIII onward to prescribe their content. After the Supremacy Act of 1534, Henry ordered the production of a set of intercessory prayers to be read ‘word for word’ throughout the land. Inevitably these replaced prayer for the Pope with a prayer ‘first, as we be most bounded, for our sovereign lord King Henry the VIIIth, being immediately next under God the only supreme head of this catholick church of England’. A similar set of prayers was produced during the passage of the Ten Articles through Convocation in 1536 (during which time sermons also were forbidden).
In the Marian and Elizabethan periods set intercessions were retained, albeit with modifications reflecting the differing theological-political positions of the two monarchs. The use of set intercession was eventually enshrined in Canon 55 of the new reformed order of Canon Law issued in 1604. Despite this liturgical straitjacketing, practice on the ground differed. The seventeenth century saw efforts to stamp out (mainly puritan) preachers delivering their own forms of intercession. In 1695 and again in 1717 there were attempts to ensure that in the prayer for the monarch all of the King’s titles were mentioned. But by the eighteenth century pamphleteers were accusing strict adherents of Canon 55 of petty officiousness.
The Partial Rediscovery of Power and Prayer
Official acceptance of the need for greater freedom in prayer and recognition of the importance of general intercession has thus in fact been a relatively recent innovation. Its explicit renewal is most clearly seen in the Roman Catholic Church’s reinstatement of intercession following the Second Vatican Council. Here the rationale for the replacement of the bedes with general vernacular prayers was explicitly related to the wider agenda of the council to re-empower the liturgy so that it ‘can achieve its pastoral effects to the fullest’. That liturgy is powerful, and that intercession as part of the liturgy thus involves power, was explicitly recognized. The Church
earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful ... should not be there as strangers or silent spectators ... [but] through a proper appreciation of the rites and prayers they should participate knowingly, devoutly, and actively.... [T]hey should learn to offer themselves... [T]hey should be drawn day by day into ever closer union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.
The intercessions here, as part of the overall eucharistic liturgy, are precisely understood as an activity involving the laity themselves. Liturgy requires the laity to express themselves as a certain kind of people, to lay hold on power, to be transformed. The prayers and the wider liturgy are ‘another chance for the faithful to participate actively in their response’ to God.
Though this represents a liturgical reinvigoration, it could well be argued that the kind of intercession as envisaged by Vatican II is not a return to what I have suggested may have been found in some parts of the earliest Church.  This is particularly clear when seen in the context of the massive eruption of lay intercession given voice in some Free Churches, particularly charismatic churches. The Council grants that intercession may be powerful. But this power would seem to be interpreted rather narrowly as part of a devotional submission to God, not towards an agenda of wider social change. It might well remind us of the kind of order in prayer envisaged by Paul and the author of the first letter of Timothy.
Despite the rediscovery of intercessory prayer by the traditional Churches, including the Anglican Church, I would suggest intercessory prayer remains the Cinderella of the liturgy. Intercession is typically considered a simple activity. Compounded by common philosophical qualms about petitionary prayer this has meant that it has long been seen as a lower form of prayer. Intercession is often responsive to immediate concerns, usually tailored to individual congregations, and frequently lay-led. ‘Set texts’ are thus comparatively rare, although many are now being produced. All of this may mean that intercession has not been accorded a great deal of study. Indeed one might wonder whether that as a typically lay oral activity it tends to be overlooked by liturgical scholars who are more used to focusing on documents. Thus, lacking extensive study, it might be that the relatively recent reinvigoration of intercession suffers from a lack of critical reflection.
II: A Theory of Power and Prayer
I have attempted to show that throughout its history intercessory prayer has often been regarded as a powerful action. My emphasis has been to show that this power has been perceived as being active not just in those being prayed for, but also in those praying. My argument has been that this has meant that intercession has borne the brunt of considerable regulation. I want to engage now in some critical reflection along two avenues. First, I want to explore how the practice of interceding might be said to ‘contain’ power. Second, I will suggest tentatively how intercession might be said to ‘transmit’ power to its pray-ers. Both of these explorations involve delving into theories about how words work.
‘Containing’ Power: When Prayer Goes Wrong
In order to elaborate how intercessions might be said to ‘contain’ power, it is worth pausing to notice what happens when intercessions ‘fail’ for a congregation. It seems banal to make the point, but intercessions today have (as Wittgenstein would have put it) their own ‘grammar’. A sensitive modern Church of England congregation will be aware of ‘grammatical mistakes’ in the delivery of the intercessions. In part this may simply be about the unwitting flouting of conventions, such as a prayer leader praying in a certain way and about certain subjects to which the congregation are unused. For example, the practice of praying for the dead might sit ill in some churches whose theology of the afterlife might mean they more typically pray instead for those who mourn.
Such a grammar is often locally constructed, but a more universal grammar may also be said to exist. One more universal grammatical mistake might be for the leader to use the first person singular (‘I pray for...’) instead of the plural (‘We...’ or ‘Let us...’). This grammatical error highlights the fact that intercessory prayer in a service of worship is usually a communal activity, not a private activity or a performance by the prayer-leader. The same error would in fact be duplicated if the leader of the intercessions failed to speak loudly enough for the congregation to hear. Or, again, if a leader failed to leave sufficient space for the congregation to digest the spoken words before launching into another petition prayer would have failed.
We might instance further points when the grammar of intercessory prayer fails for a congregation circumstances when intercessory prayer becomes hijacked by a leader’s social/political hobby-horses. An example might be praying for one particular party’s success in an otherwise free election. The cause of failure here could be called a fall into ‘horizontal prayer’, when the prayers cease to be directed towards God at all, but instead become partisan messages directed at the congregation. (For a splendid example of this, recall Henry VIII’s prayer for himself quoted above). The grammar of intercession may possibly also fail for a congregation when there is a known discrepancy between the words of the leader and her/his own publicly declared beliefs, actions or personality. And a rather more newly recognized potential grammatical error concerns our gendered language. Intercessions which ask God that ‘He might change the hearts of men’ might well be intercessions that fail for some people.
Such close attention to words indicates also (and most obviously) that the wording of the prayers in normal circumstances has usually to conform to conventionally accepted meanings and usages in order to be understood. Thus praying for the ‘British President’, about the ‘Scottish rain forest’, or ‘to the horse’ (a slip of the tongue made by an intercessor I once heard who was thanking God for the Creation at a Pet Service), may also cause the intercessions to fail for the congregation. One might also wish to push the point further by commenting on the importance of an element of poetry in the intercessions. That the language of prayer might have not just logical consistency but also aesthetic and imaginary attraction may enhance the wider grammatical effectiveness of the intercessions.
Despite these enormous linguistic demands congregations often make allowances for many forms of grammatical error and thereby avert failing prayers. They sometimes do, for example, when children lead prayers which are partially inaudible or which, compared with an adult’s handling, are relatively poorly phrased. The spirit triumphs over the letter. But a congregation would probably not extend the same courtesy to an adult leader who repeatedly did the same. Here the prayers would be ‘dreadful’ and a congregation might feel it had not succeeded in praying. Curiously, however, the fact that such grammatical errors may often annoy a sizable part of the congregation ironically indicates precisely how power-laden intercessory prayer really can be. They show how ineffective or counter-effective grammatically inaccurate prayers can be. (They result in a passion not for the subjects of the prayers, but a passion against the intercessory leader!). By reversal, though, this presumably also indicates how powerful and effective grammatically accurate prayers may be. Yet the situation is slightly more complicated. One might say that a prayer considered from some in the congregation’s points of view as grammatically inaccurate might still be considered effective from the leader’s point of view. An instance of the latter would be Robert Runcie’s famous intercession for the relatives of Argentine casualties in the Falklands’ War at the Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance held in St. Paul’s Cathedral to mark the end of that war. Margaret Thatcher considered the prayer unpatriotic. Presumably this was precisely Runcie’s intention: God is not British. This would align the effect of his prayer with Walter Wink’s interpretation of the effects of the prayers of the early Christian martyrs on their hearers. Both sets of prayers were considered subversive, for both were saying that God’s power transcends the power of any single political regime.
The ‘Readers’ Respond
What I have been trying to show by this brief anecdotal overview is that the power of intercessory prayer is not in actual fact ‘contained’ in the prayers themselves, so much as contained in the act of praying. Instead the power of intercession may be said to be constructed through a process of what literary theorists call ‘reader-response’. By this I mean that power is found in the interaction of prayer leader (‘author’), congregation (‘reader’) and the prayers’ substance (‘text’).
Let me return briefly to a consideration of the New Testament strictures against female public prayer. One might well unmask within the outlines of the dispute about the perceived subversive power of female prayer a reader-response model. There we saw the unusual phenomenon in the Roman world of women (‘the authors’) leading prayers, in mixed and public company (‘the readers’), and vocalizing petitions (‘the text’) which called for the transformation of the world. In the first century one can therefore potentially identify a reader-response triad of prayer-leader(s), congregation and text, and it is within this interaction that a socially disturbing power threatens to emerge.
Looking at intercession as an interactive process one can thus begin to notice how disrupted, inhibited or channeled the power of intercessory prayer would have been throughout much of its history. As Vatican II correctly realized, congregations have long been treated as only bit-players when in fact they arguably play an essential role in the triadic dance that constitutes intercession. Reducing the laity’s participation by condensing the prayers, saying them in an inaccessible language or place, or limiting the prayers to particular hierarchically authorized and formulated topics, may have had a significant dampening effect on the power of intercession for those who were praying, when seen from a reader-response perspective.
On the other hand it is worth noting that reader-response theory allows for a certain sedition. Seen from a reader-response point of view, it might actually be the case that even those elements which were licensed to be prayed about would only have had as much power over the pray-ers as the pray-ers themselves would have been prepared to allow. No amount of prescribing of bedes by Henry VIII, or controlling of female intercessory prayer by Timothy’s author, could entirely have made those who prayed as they were commanded conduct themselves, and think, in ways other than the pray-ers might otherwise have chosen for themselves. Reader-response theory thus includes a significant potential for the subversion of meaning by the reader, as deconstructionist theorists such as Derrida have argued. Of course, this is a contentious issue. Not all theorists (as will be discussed below) share the privileging of the reader absolutely. In the case of intercessory prayer the independence of the congregation (the ‘readers’) in part depends upon there being no coercion placed upon them, and that they are able to supply other more congenial interpretations to the prescribed prayers. Thus to an extent the versicle and response
Priest. Endue thy Ministers with righteousness
Answer. And make thy chosen people joyful
or the similar exchange
(Minister) O Lord, save the Queen;
(People) and teach her counsellors wisdom
have at least two meanings. One is the reading ‘from above’. Priests and the monarch are to be prayed for because they are powerful people, whose power is in fact under-lined by being the subject of legally enforced prayers. The intended effect in the first response is that their righteousness will make the laity ‘joyful’. A subversive reading ‘from below’ might however be: we pray for priests and the monarch because they are a corrupt bunch who need to be ‘taught wisdom’ and only then will the laity find happiness.
Force: Performing Prayer
Thus far I hope, using a reader-response model, I have advanced a theory about the ‘containing’ of power in the act of intercessory praying. Yet this merely maps out a rather static skeletal structure. Into this framework something else is needed: force or direction. In his analysis of language, the speech-act theorist A. L. Austin argued that to reduce all words to the function of description is to impoverish language. The issue is particularly pertinent in the realm of prayer since praying can by no means be considered a ‘scientific’ use of language. Prayers do not merely attempt to describe a thing, nor can they be considered ‘true’ or ‘false’. Prayer does not simply involve saying something about the world, although it must to some extent do this to make any conventional sense at all. Prayer also attempts to achieve something for the world. It involves praying ‘for’ someone or ‘that’ something might happen.
Austin distinguished these two types of language by designating the former (descriptive) type as constative and the latter performative. Prayer is, in Austin’s terminology, always performative. Within performative language Austin identified several layers. First, there is the layer of basic sentence structure which he called locution. Thus the prayer ‘we + pray + for + the + sick’ makes a basic sense that the prayer ‘we + blue + the + goldfish’ does not. But on top of this basic meaning is applied a second layer which Austin called illocutionary force. Thus the prayer ‘we pray for the sick’ actually has a further, easily overlooked, meaning of ‘it is we who choose to pray for the sick’. This latter illocutionary mode highlights what we do in saying something. We might thus correctly understand that for a prayer-leader to say ‘we place into God’s hands those known to us who are sick’ and then for the congregation to respond ‘Amen’ (i.e. ‘we agree’), is for all who are truly praying to participate in a self-involving activity precisely of (metaphorically) placing into God’s hands the sick. Illocution means for the praying congregation to take a certain stand on a certain issue. It involves them mentally and spiritually ‘doing’ something as they pray.
Understood this way leaders of the intercession are, in their choice of subjects to pray for, in a unique position to initiate a powerful exchange. Of course this always depends upon the accompanying pray-ers choosing not to ignore or misunderstand a leader’s illocution. They might instead, for example, merely mumble ‘amen’ without really noticing what a prayer says and the demands it requires of those who genuinely assent to it. Here the prophetic and leadership roles of the intercessor are brought to the surface. What the leader of intercession prays about always reflects some form of a priori judgment on the world, some position about how things should be. Thus we pray for ‘a just peace’ during war, but not for ‘rain’ during a torrential downpour. Indeed, in the case of the women leading the prayers in Timothy’s church, their very actions indicate an a priori judgment not just about what should be prayed about, but who should be able to lead prayer (i.e. women and those of any status, not just high-ranking males). The women judge the world prophetically by their being prayer-leaders as well as what they choose to say in their prayers about the transformation of the world they wish God would bring about.
That prayer always relies upon some such a priori perception of how the world should be is reinforced by the location of the intercessory prayers. They are situated at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, after the readings and their explication in the sermon, and following the Creed which sums up for Christians what is the true ‘meaning’ and significance of the world. Thus at its most effective intercessory prayer takes up the prophetic challenge of the proclamation of the Gospel and examines the world in the light of God’s Word. Prayer pays heed to any mismatch between the two and implores God to act to end this breach. In doing this, it is also the case that the intercessions therefore not only critique the present situation, they also seek the present’s redemption. It is thus significant that intercession is also, in a sense, the first part of the Liturgy of the Sacrament and the lifting up of the world for its consummation by God. To intercede, I would suggest, is therefore to perform not only a prophetic but also a priestly activity.
The Context of Powerful Prayer
I have tried to show that in intercessory prayer there is ‘force’ or ‘direction’ in the chosen words. The words refer to a state of the world which is not yet seen, but is hoped for. But now it is worth returning briefly to the issue I raised earlier about the absolutism of the reader in some reader-response theory. Though readers individually clearly play a part in creating the meaning of a prayer (and thus in the discovery of its power), it is though not the case that any interpretation of a prayer is equally valid nor that the meaning of prayers is arbitrary. In this I step back from an extreme deconstructionist theory. As I have attempted to show, speech comes from somewhere and is intended to go somewhere. In the case of intercessory prayer the context from which prayer emanates is (in most services) the proclamation of the Word and the prefigurement of the world’s consummation in the Eucharist. In addition intercession also aims at (‘goes toward’) the transformation of the pray-ers and their world. The ministries of Word and Eucharist find their completion in the Kingdom of God: it is that Kingdom alone to which intercession legitimately aims.
The real meaningfulness of prayer for those who pray thus depends upon the extent to which Word and Sacrament are taken as definitive statements about the ultimate reality of the world. Intercessions will therefore fail for those who say them either if their context (the Word and the Sacrament) is meaningless per se (if there is no God), or if the articulation of the context is unsatisfactory. This first point is emphasized by atheists. To pray is meaningless. The second is a point about the public conduct of worship and should thus be a legitimate concern for Christians. This latter point means that, I suggest, it is difficult to conduct intercessory prayer (which, after all, seeks some kind of new world order) when the subject of the prayers is at odds with the world order envisaged in the proclamation of the Gospels and prefigured in the Eucharist. In other words it would be difficult to justify praying for the wholesale destruction of an enemy given the Gospel injunction to ‘love your enemies’ and the example of the self-giving love of Christ in the Eucharist.
Similarly, strictly speaking, when Christians pray using the pronoun ‘we’, but at the same time refuse to share Communion with a fellow worshipper one might well raise the question whether either full Communion or adequate intercessory prayer could be said to have taken place. The same would be the case when Christians seek to share Communion with a fellow worshipper who is nevertheless excluded, denigrated or ignored in the prayers. If one assumes either Communion or intercession have occurred one might well be deluding oneself. After all, an essential part of the ‘grammar’ of both the Eucharist and intercessory prayer is that neither are ever merely a private devotion between a communicant or a pray-er and God. Both actions either appeal to, or enact, new forms of Christ-like community. This is why, ideally speaking, the Peace is so important. It allows local tensions which surface in the light of the proclamation of the Gospel and in the prayers to be resolved before Communion. This enables Communion really to occur. What this amounts to is that although reader-response theory offers a useful model for examining the structure of intercessory prayer, its individualizing tendencies need to be curbed by the insights of speech-act theory.
Having placed that slight check on reader-response theory, in a moment I will move on to compare an illocutionary interpretation of intercession with a particular form of psychological therapy. By doing so I would like to explore how the power of prayer might be said to transform a body of praying Christians. However in the light of my emphasis on what is achieved for intercessors in the act of praying, rather than what is achieved for those being prayed for, it is worth noting that Austin’s speech-act theory contains an additional concept. In addition to locution and illocution, Austin also introduced a third category of performative language, perlocution. This concerns ‘what we bring about by saying something’. The difference between perlocution and illocution is one of predictability. In illocution a close analysis of the prayed-words will reveal what is achieved in the act of a conscious, honest, saying of them. ‘We place the sick into God’s hands’ literally means ‘as we are praying now, we are placing the sick, metaphorically speaking, into the care of God’. In perlocution though the effect of the prayers and how they are answered is neither certain nor predictable. It concerns the question: what will happen now to the sick whom we have just placed into God’s hands? Will they, for example, be healed?
Earlier I used the model of three coinciding ‘horizons’ (God’s, the intercessors’, and of those being prayed for). In intercessory prayer a concern with perlocution naturally leads us to question what might be going on in two of these horizons when we pray. On the face of it, the most obvious issue is what is going on in God’s horizon? How will God choose to respond to the prayers we make? And what effect is this going to have on those people or situations we have prayed about? But on second thoughts we might also ask about the horizon of the pray-ers’ themselves. How will we choose to respond to these prayers we have just said? Thus in terms of perlocution, to the intercession ‘we pray for the welfare of workers in the third world’ we may posit two groups of causal results. First, that God may do something for third world workers - but who knows what, or how? And second, that we also may answer our own prayers and do something. But precisely what we may do is, again, unspecified. It could range from rejecting after-worship Nescafé coffee in favour of fairly traded Cafédirect to becoming a fair-trade campaigner, who knows?
At this point it is worth highlighting the spectrum of theological speculation about the nature and possibility of divine intervention as implicated in these potential forms of response. It becomes clear that my concept of three distinct horizons here begins to come unstuck. At one end of the theological spectrum, were we to accept the dictum that ‘God has no hands but our own’, several of these horizons might be considered identical. Thus our drinking of Cafédirect might really be God’s answer (and the only possible answer) to our prayer. At the other end of the spectrum, we might emphasize a notion of God’s overriding power and the insignificance of human actions (something which I suggested underpinned the Orationes Sollemnes). Here the divine horizon easily eclipses the horizon of those who pray and those who are prayed-for. Thus we, and the workers themselves, might be rather apathetic in doing our bit to realize our hoped-for-world. It doesn’t matter what coffee we drink, or what the workers do, their plight is God’s business and we must simply carry on praying that God would do something. A mid-point on this spectrum might be represented by the attempts to depict the coincidence (but not elision) of the horizons of God, intercessor and ‘intercessee’ (in other words of grace and nature). Most famously this is the strategy of Karl Rahner. ‘In prayer we experience ourselves as those who are spoken by God, who in the concreteness of our existence have our origin in and are at the disposal of God’s supreme freedom’. For Rahner the world is never experienced ‘neat’, it is always infused by the activity of the Spirit. In other words, our Cafédirect consumption might be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, but God will be working in other ways, too.
As interesting as these theological questions may be, for the purposes of this discussion my investigation into the power of intercession is particularly focused on the concept of illocution rather than perlocution. That is to say, I am especially interested to know how what we pray about indicates to us something about who we are and what we may become as religious people. That is, I am interested in what Austin called the ‘institutional’ dimension of speech-act theory rather than its causal, ‘instrumental’, functions.
It is worth noting then that an illocutionary definition of prayer is by no means alien to the self-interpretation of other religions at prayer. For example, the preface of one modern Jewish prayer book rejects the etymology of the English word ‘pray’ = ‘beg’ and instead draws attention to the fact that in Hebrew the word for prayer (tephilla) is a reflexive verb. In Hebrew, to pray is, in a sense, always to speak to oneself in the light of God:
prayer is intended to change man [sic], not God. Its purpose is to cultivate a contrite heart, to promote feelings of humility and inadequacy ... Through prayer the worshipper becomes chastened, gains moral strength and intensifies the quest for spirituality, thereby turning into a person worthy of a response to his [sic] pleas ... Prayer is addressed to oneself rather than to God.
Of course, the idea that the embarrassing practice of petitionary prayer could be satisfactorily reduced to a rather complex form of talking to oneself might well appeal to some thinkers. Some Christian theologians might well argue that a perlocutionary emphasis in Christian worship (aiming at effecting some sort of change beyond the horizon of the pray-er) is purely superstitious. Nevertheless Christianity has always (despite embarrassment and incomprehension) considered it valid and indeed dominically sanctioned to attempt to effect world-change through intercession and has thus enshrined such an emphasis in its formal liturgies. Nevertheless, having left the door open to perlocution and pointed the way towards various possible theologies about the answering of prayer, I wish to return now to illocution: to the effect of prayer on those who pray.
Let me recap. Thus far by using reader-response theory I have made a suggestion about how power could be said to be contained in the act of intercessory prayer. Further, I have used the concept of illocution to suggest how power might be said to be transmitted by the prayer leader from the context of the Service of the Word and the Sacrament, toward the pray-ers. I have thus suggested that in being led in prayer a congregation are doing something that potentially affects their very identity. In fact I have argued that this ‘doing something’ is to be found in addition to expecting God to act in other ways on their behalf. It involves a congregation taking a stand about how the world should be (which itself may well be interpreted as the activity of God). And in a caveat I have stressed that I would not want to limit God’s power to act simply to what goes on in the minds and behaviour of a congregation but, implicitly, I am arguing that one should not overlook the work of God in the pray-ers themselves.
In this final section I want to refer to the psychology of cognitive behaviour therapy. Hopefully this can serve as a model to explore how in the gap between what we feel we should pray for, and the ultimate answering of those prayers, the power of intercessory prayer might be said to be at work among us. In other words I want to ask, what powerful things might happen to a body of people who offer prayer?
Mental Models and Making Sense
To answer this question a brief explanation of cognitive behaviour therapy is required. Cognitive psychology takes its starting point from a view of humans as creatures who perceive, interpret, and relate to the world around them via the construction and deployment of mental schemas. As we develop as persons we gradually create for ourselves mental models about how the world works. These models help us to give meaning to what might be otherwise random and essentially meaningless experiences. They also serve to prime us to respond to future experiences. It is important to recognize here that cognitive psychology notes an important ‘gap’ between raw experience and interpreted, processed, experience. Our cognitive models filter out for us much that we have already presumed to be extraneous. We never have to approach eating an apple as if it were the first apple we had ever come across. On the contrary such pre-prepared memorized models, like ‘apple-eating’, enable us to live efficiently. Nevertheless schemas, since they are but models, may be subject to alteration with the reception of a sufficient quantity of new data. (In a restaurant I might learn it is more polite to eat an apple with a knife rather than biting into it. But at a fair, bobbing for an apple in a barrel, I have to learn to behave in entirely different ways!). With the passing of time, we may therefore learn new ways of perceiving certain experiences and these may alter our models and lead to us to new ways of treating future experiences. At its simplest, in pictorial form borrowing from Wittgenstein (whose notion of ‘seeing-as’ is akin to the cognitive schema idea), what we may originally see in one way (a duck) might with further reflection also come to be seen in another way (a rabbit).
Religion has been interpreted as a particularly large form of schema (in fact it would seem to include many individual smaller schemas within it). Religion then may be said to provide for us a way of seeing the world, a way of interpreting it, and thus also a way of cueing us to respond to the world. The idea of religion-as-schema can be illustrated most starkly with reference to a study carried out in 1965 of Spiritualists and Christian Scientists. Those who were studied did not appear to manifest any signs of grief when bereaved. Their schematic (theological) view of death shaped their emotional responses to death. For them death was not something over which there was a need to express grief.
This cognitive schema idea has been used in providing psychotherapy in cases where it is believed that mental (and even physical) processes have been skewed by unrealistic cognitive models. For example, cases of depression, over-anxiety, phobia and psychosomatic illness have all been treated successfully with cognitive behavioural therapy. Cognitive therapy is ‘based on an underlying theoretical rationale that an individual’s affect and behaviour are largely determined by the way he [sic] structures the world’. Methods of treatment do not however involve arguing a patient out of believing the world ‘is’ some way but not another. Rather they involve a collaborative reviewing with the patient of her/his perception and valuation of the world and the self, and the origin and rationale of these evaluations. In the case of depression then, ‘there is thus no qualitative difference between the thinking processes of most depressive patients and of those who attempt to treat them; rather, depression exaggerates and intensifies processes present in all of us’. Cognitive behaviour therapy aims at enabling patients to be aware of and to modify their own interpretative (and thus their cueing) processes with the hope of helping to create for them better life-satisfaction. Problems which ostensibly appear to be ‘out there’ in the raw experience of life are dealt with ‘in here’ in the patient’s interpretative processing.
For those with depression the notion that others genuinely do not value them will be, if untreated, viciously reinforcing. Existing depression may beget further depressive interpretations of the world. In treatment a patient would be encouraged to review the standards s/he has been using to judge social encounters, to be aware of the danger of negative feed-back mechanisms, and to construct more positive alternative interpretations of events. Therapy will then typically involve learning to construct alternative explanations of events which are not merely the result of conditioned or learnt anxious, depressive or phobic ways of responding to the world, and to question the assumptions that underpin problematic interpretations of events.
Prayer as Powerful Therapy?
In some ways intercessory prayer could be interpreted along cognitive behaviour therapy lines. In discussing speech-act theory and illocution I have already suggested that praying involves the powerful process of a congregation being invited by the intercessory leader to look at and respond to the world in a certain way. A theory of cognitive models might suggest how pray-ers ‘receive’ and ‘deploy’ these power-laden prayers in the act of praying if they choose to allow these religious ‘schemas’ (the prayers) to interact with their existing cognitive schemas. This interaction might occur in two directions. First, often intercessory prayer deals with issues which have brought anxiety and despondency upon the praying congregation (for example the illness of a family member or simply the state of the world around). Prayer, like cognitive behaviour therapy, might be said to deal with the gap in life between the pray-ers’ ideals/values and their raw experiences in as much as it helps them to re-draw their expectations. Thus when a congregation is led in the intercession ‘Father, we place into your care those we know to be ill’, it might be that individuals in a congregation are able to engage in a certain amount of ‘letting go’. In being reminded of their humility and ultimate powerlessness before God (as the Jewish prayer book cited above put it) such a prayer may help pray-ers to relinquish the anxiety they have over issues which they cannot themselves solve. It might be possible then to say that in prayer pray-ers, as it were, adapt their schemas in the light of God and thus cause their expectations and consequently their behaviour to be adjusted. In focusing on ‘lowering’ expectations prayer’s power may be said to operate rather like cognitive behaviour therapy.
Kenneth Pargament in his Psychology of Religions and Coping categorizes such a form of prayer as ‘deferring’. The pray-er ‘defers’ to God a situation beyond his/her control. The value of a mechanism of deferring is however a debated one. Those who defer tend to exhibit a lower sense of personal control and a reluctance to engage with planned problem solving. ‘The deferring approach with its reliance on external authority seems to embody the passive, helpless kind of religiousness so heavily criticized by many psychologists’. And yet there is substantial evidence that when dealing with the outcomes of specific negative events, a form of prayer which defers to God actually results in positive well being for the pray-ers. To quote Pargament at some length,
[in] situations when the individual [and presumably, by extension, the community] has, in fact, very little control … the most appropriate thing to do may well be to give up. But give up to what? In the deferring religious coping style, the individual surrenders not to hopelessness nor to foreign powers. The responsibility for problem solving is delegated to what most see as an omnipotent but benign Being. Considering the alternatives when personal control is no longer possible, this may be one of the more empowering choices … [Similarly] while pleading for a miracle may not be effective for dealing with controllable situations, in situations that fall outside of the person’s own powers, pleading may offer a way to achieve a sense of vicarious control and mastery through God.
Writing within a North American context, Pargament elsewhere notes that prayer in general is considered most helpful by the elderly, the poorer, the less educated, blacks, the widowed and by many women. Although he does not explicitly make the connection, presumably one explanation would be that a deferring style of intercession in some cases grants these groups a power otherwise denied them by the wider society. Likewise it might be the case that those whose inability to achieve a solution to a problem which is beyond their control (a disease, a conflict or a natural disaster) might also find deferring, ironically, the only powerful resource remaining.
In summary, it could well be argued that paradoxically there is power in the prayer of self-abandonment, power in intercession which functions in a deferring mode. In encouraging pray-ers to hand over their cares to God, intercessory prayer might well be seen as a process which works in a similar way to cognitive behavioural therapy. Thus intercession could be said to grant power to those who pray. And by extension, it might also be seen as subverting the power of those who would otherwise wish to control those who pray – as the example of the early Christian martyrs bears witness. However, I stated that this was but the first of two possible ways in which prayer might interact with the cognitive schemas of those who pray. There is a second direction of interaction which bears upon the relationship between power and prayer.
Prayer as Discontent
Thus far I have only spoken about the power of prayer in redrawing pray-ers expectations downwards. There is though also a second direction in the interaction between the power-laden messages of prayer and the schemas of pray-ers. For it is more usually the case that in its prophetic role intercession creates a certain amount of unease, rather than reducing it. Intercession in particular reminds pray-ers of the gulf between what they hope for and what is presently the case. In this sense prayer focuses on heightening expectations. This could also be illustrated through the concept of prayer as the adaptation of existing cognitive schemas. In this case though we would need to understand that prayer reverses the goal of cognitive behaviour therapy. Rather than helping pray-ers to sit more comfortably with life, it encourages pray-ers to allow their schemas to become even more divergent from experience. But why should prayer attempt to make pray-ers discontented?
I want to suggest that although there is much that is useful in an alignment of intercessory prayer with cognitive behaviour therapy, this technique focuses in large part upon an individual’s ability to ‘manage’ the world under her/his own steam. However, in contrast, this view of being human has an important check placed upon it by Christianity. With its global reforming programme (‘redemption’) Christianity looks for the transformation of the world, not just of individuals’ perceptions of it. Prayer is indeed frequently outward and future looking. It assumes that those seeking such change are acting not merely under their own power, but with divine inspiration. This is perhaps why it is significant that intercessory prayer often takes place corporately. General intercession is about pursuing a social vision which pertains to the whole human race, rather than any individual’s private vision. Indeed there is anecdotal evidence that group prayer in particular, in contrast to solitary prayer, is considered especially powerful for those praying. In a study of prayer among the elderly, the following comments were recorded,
[in group prayer] you have a feeling that it’s going to make a difference because you have all these forces coming together and unified and it’s a sense of power.
I think there is power in group prayer. I think all religions have taught there is power in unity, singleness and purpose’
Though group prayer might indeed involve a powerful element of collective deferring as if conducting cognitive behaviour therapy en masse, praying as a body might also achieve something rather different, something rather more radical.
Besides categorizing some prayer as ‘deferring’, Pargament also identifies a second form of prayer. This he calls ‘collaboration’. Here control is not passively handed over to God, but is ‘centred in the relationship between the individual and God … responsibility for coping is neither the individual’s alone nor God’s alone, but rather shared’. While a deferring pray-er might explain that ‘rather than trying to come up with the right solution to a problem myself, I let God decide how to deal with it’, a collaborative pray-er might say ‘when considering a difficult situation, God and I work together to think of possible solutions’. In terms of the actual wording of the prayers themselves, I would like to distinguish these two categories. Deferring prayers would seem to me to be most like the ‘we pray for X’ variety. Here X is any number of prayer topics usually taking the form of a list of simple requests (e.g. ‘we pray for the poor, the sick and the bereaved’). By contrast collaborative prayers would seem to me to take a rather different shape. These would take the form of ‘we pray that X’s situation would be changed so that Y takes place’. The difference is that in the latter instance the pray-er is actively involved in envisaging an outcome with God, not just handing over a problem to God.
The line between deferring and collaborating in prayer is admittedly a thin line, and intercession may stray back and forth across this distinction. But what is significant about collaboration is that, in illocutionary terms, it indicates that those praying are using their imaginations to fashion a future possible world that does not presently exist. In other words it involves the creation of a prophetic people. Intercessors are not simply passing on a problem to be solved by someone else, they are envisaging solutions themselves: they are dreaming. In this prophetic dimension of intercession pray-er discontent is encouraged. Expectations of what the world could and should be, and how this could come about, are raised. In this form of prayer, pray-ers’ mental models of the world are being broadened to incorporate new possibilities. In the act of praying collaborative pray-ers are corporately reconstructing their view of life and its potential in line with a vision of God’s future consummation of the entire world. To use an analogy of St. Paul, in the process of doing this together not just Christ (the head) but the whole Church (the body) is seen to be active. In group collaborative prayer a congregation thus becomes a people who are restlessly living in anticipation of the Kingdom and understand their vocation and activity as a foretaste of it. Alongside group deferring, this form of prayer could also be powerful. It too would naturally give rise to civil and religious attempts to control it. For if, as Karl Barth is remembered as having once put it, ‘to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’, collaborative collective prayer is surely the stuff of revolution.
Let me try to gather these historical, theoretical and psychological reflections together. While not wishing to limit the scope of God’s response to prayer to what goes on in pray-ers’s minds, I have tried to draw attention to what happens to pray-ers when they pray. At its most basic all I have tried to say is that an important element of the power of intercessory prayer is that it can make pray-ers prophetic people who are aware that they have one foot in this kingdom and another in God’s Kingdom. And this, I have suggested, is perhaps why intercessory prayer has been so heavily regulated. It threatens the status quo. Part of prayer’s power is that together (through corporate reader-response) pray-ers are potentially moved by prophetic words (passed on in speech-acts) to become (as if in some mutated cognitive behaviour therapy) expectant children of a Kingdom not yet fully present.
Of course we could find here hidden in this formulation a Trinitarian shape. For we might wish to identify the presence of ‘the Spirit’ in the actions of corporate sharing and mutual listening which constitute the element of the ‘reader-response’ in prayer. We might also wish to find an echo of ‘the Son’ in the prophetic speech-act element of prayer. For he is God’s ‘Word’ to us of judgment upon and hope for the world, which we take up and re-utter in prayer. And ‘the Father’ we could quite easily identify with the transcendent target of our prayers, the One who promises the redemption of this world. Put simply, in intercession, moulded by the Spirit after the pattern of the Word, we are turning with open hands and hearts to the Source and End of all life. All of which is perhaps a very long-winded way of saying that there would indeed seem to be legitimacy in using the common intercessory preface ‘in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father’!
If when Christians really pray their ‘mental models’ are being rolled back such that they become citizens of a greater world beyond the petty kingdoms they presently inhabit, then intercessory prayer should surely have far greater emphasis placed upon it. Let me restate my case by asking a provocative question. What difference would there be to the way we treat the intercessions if it were believed that in any service the sermon and the Eucharist were the goad and the way-side sustenance, but that it was in intercessory prayer that a church’s real journey into God’s Kingdom was being made?
After all the theory, if intercession does deserve greater emphasis, what then of practicalities? I have here tried to distill from what I have been trying to say four groups of simple (and mostly obvious) points possibly worth considering. Their usefulness will be limited, and in some cases will be quite useless since good prayer cannot be reduced to a formula.
Most of what I have written assumes a rather traditional Anglican format of intercessor leading prayer on behalf of the congregation, but this itself raises an important initial question:
• Who gets to lead the prayers?
In places with designated prayer-leaders and rotas, who chooses who should be allowed to pray? What criteria are being used? As well as some question of professionalism, there ought to be a question about how visionary, prophetic and imaginative a prayer leader might also need to be. If a single leader of intercessions is to be chosen, rather than allowing open prayer, are there nevertheless ways of encouraging the whole body to contribute to the fashioning of the prayers? Are there times when open collective prayer can be encouraged?
• Is it possible to link intercessions to the readings and/or the sermon and the Eucharist?
A useful kind of question for one leading intercession might be, when I hold up today’s Gospel next to the world, what are the important differences? What is not yet complete about the world? That might well mean a little bible study and reflective prayer before preparing intercessions. The intercessor is after all in some ways called to be a prophet for the community in that s/he identifies what are the most important things to pray about. Equally, to make a link with the Eucharist might mean having an element of thanks in the prayers. Even if there is no Eucharist, should an element of thanks for what has already been received perhaps be encouraged before asking for more? After all, part of our hoped-for world has already been realized, above all in what has been done in Christ, but also in all those communities who gather to remember Christ. The intercessor is then being called to do something rather priest-like for their community.
• Is it possible to pray not just ‘for so-in-so’, but ‘that so-in-so might…’?
Sometimes we do not know for what we should ask and can only name a person or situation and then simply leave a space for other pray-ers to silently offer their responses. Often though it is possible to imagine or dream an outcome to our petition. If we share this we are including an important and prophetic dimension to prayer. In communicating this we might find it effective if there is an element of ‘poetry’ to bring our words, and the vision behind them, to life.
• Is there enough time for the words to work?
Running through everything I have said has been an emphasis on the power of words. Does a prayer leader need to speak more slowly and allow greater time between prayers to help other pray-ers to digest the words they have heard and take on board their meaning? Bearing in mind attention spans and congregational needs, actual prayers themselves might need to be shorter to achieve this. But perhaps it is not the number of words, but their weight which is of most importance?
 The most explicit being Prayer F of Common Worship: “Look with favour on your people and in your mercy hear the cry of our hearts. Bless the earth, heal the sick, let the oppressed go free and fill your Church with power from on high”.
 For a survey and critique of recent attempts to combine divine intervention and modern science see N. Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science (Cambridge, 2002).
 I am aware that many critics of classical theism (and Deism) have attempted to address the philosophical problems of intervention precisely by critiquing the notions of subject-object classification that underpin my identification of distinct prayer horizons. For example, see E. H. Henderson, ‘Austin Farrer and D. Z. Phillips on lived faith, prayer, and divine reality’, Modern Theology 1(3) (1985), pp. 223-43. B. G. Epperly attempts to apply Whitehead’s process theology to intercession in ‘Prayer, process and the future of medicine’, Journal of Religion and Health, 39 (2000), 23-37.
 The authors of the study note that the results have a one-in-twenty-five probability of being produced merely by chance. W. S. Harris, et al. ‘A randomised, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit’, Psychological Perspectives on Prayer, A Reader, eds. L. J. Francis & J. Astley (Leominster, 2001), pp. 164-76.
 Harris, et al. ‘A randomised, controlled trial’, p. 174; E. F. Harkness, N. C. Abbot & E. Edzard, ‘A randomized trial of distant healing for skin warts’, The American Journal of Medicine, 108 (2000), pp. 448-52.
 These objections are aside from other ethical qualms: should one put God to the test, should one deliberately seek not to pray for another’s well being? See, for example the criticism voiced by J. T. Chibnall, J. M. Jeral & M. A. Cerullo, ‘Experiments on distant intercessory prayer. God, science, and the lesson of Massah’, Archives of Internal Medicine, 2001 (161), pp. 2529-2536.
 The Amidah is also known, traditionally, as the 18 Benedictions (although there are in fact 19). Numbers 4-16 are petitionary, including requests for healing, freedom and justice. For a basic introduction, see C. M. Pilkington, Judaism (London, 1995), pp. 125-30.
 Though the biblical text is hazy on this, such a political deal certainly lay behind the usurper Cyrus’ original decree, as the Cyrus Cylinder makes clear: ‘May all the gods whom I have [re]placed within their sanctuaries address a daily prayer in my favour before Bel and Nabu, that my days be long...’.Documents from Old Testament Times, ed. D. Winton Thomas (London, 1958), pp. 93-4. Cyrus justified his rebellion as being the result of the god Marduk having compassion on the regional gods and their peoples whose cults have been disrupted by the former Babylonian regime’s policy of centralization and homogenization, p. 92. Cf. P. Akroyd, Exile and Restoration (London, 1968), pp. 140-1.
 Contrast the peculiar discrepancy between Zechariah ch. 4:6-10a and ch. 6:9-15 which perhaps indicates a shift of hopes away from Zerubbabel towards Joshua. For discussion of Zerubbabel, Darius and the new Temple see P. Akroyd, Exile, chs. 9, 10 §2 & 11 §2. Akroyd himself rejects the theory that Zerubbabel’s disappearance was related to the quashing of an earlier revival of Davidic hopes. On the other hand, see K. Koch, The Prophets, The Babylonian and Persian Periods, 2 vols. (London, 1983), II, pp. 163-66.
 Quoted in M. Dibelius, & H. Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles (Philadelphia, 1972), p. 37, n. 18.
 As was the twice-daily sacrifice offered on behalf of Caesar and the people of Rome. Josephus, The Jewish War (Harmondsworth, 1981), p. 141 and n. 35, p. 429.
 W. Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia, 1984), p. 110. The power of such actions are discussed in D. Toole, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo (London, 2001), pp. 234-5, 255, who discusses Yoder’s concept of ‘revolutionary subordination’.
 See E. Schüssler Fiorenza’s, In Memory of Her, A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London, 1983), especially pp. 160-241 and more recently A. C. Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets, A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric (MN, 1990). Whether the precise re-writing of gender-roles resulted in equality, or androgyny, is disputed, see D. M. Marten, The Corinthian Body (New Haven & London, 1995).
 For a summary of the various views of this thorny subject see A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, A Commentary on the Greek Text (Carlisle, 2000), pp. 800-48.
 Cf. other similar concerns behind such passages as Romans 13: 1–7, 1 Peter 2: 14, 17 and Titus 3: 1.
 Quoted in The Pastoral Epistles, p. 38. An example of early Christian intercession on behalf of the State can be found in ch 61 of the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Early Christian Writers (Harmondsworth), p. 48.
 For each intercession a deacon instructed the laity to kneel, to pray (presumably in silence), and after a while to stand again, whereupon the officiant concluded the prayer with a collect.
 N. Kollar, ‘Prayer of the Faithful’, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion (1979), vol. 3, p. 2855.
 Ironically the word derives from the French prône, being the grille separating the chancel from the nave, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1997), p. 1335.
 Quoted in L. Vischer, Intercession (Geneva, 1980), p. 48.
 F. E. Brightman, The English Rite, Being a Synopsis of the Sources and Revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, 2. vols. (London, 1915), II, p. 1035.
 Brightman, The English Rite, pp. 1026-31.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), ch. 2 (49), p. 155, The Documents of Vatican II (London, 1967). By this time the bedes had been honed down in the Roman Catholic Church to five lay-spoken Our Fathers.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, ch. 2 (48), p. 154 (italics mine).
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, ch. 2 (53), p. 156, n. 44.
 I owe this pertinent observation (and many others) to Revd John Robertson.
 Cf. J. A. Melloh, ‘The general intercessions revisited’, Worship 61(2) (1987), pp. 152-62.
 From the Book of Common Prayer, Mattins and Evensong.
 From Common Worship: Daily Prayer, Preliminary Edition, Litany 22.
 Cf. J. A. Zimmerman, ‘The general intercessions: yet another visit’, Worship 65(4) (1991), pp. 306-19.
 A. C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (London, 1992), pp. 283-9.
 J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, 1962), p. 108.
 K. Rahner, ‘The Apostolate of Prayer’, Theological Investigations, 3 (London and New York, 1967), p. 128.
 The Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1998), p. xvi.
 This is the line taken by D. Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer (London, 1965), ch. 6 ‘Superstition and Petitionary Prayer’, pp. 112-30.
 D. N. McIntosh, ‘Religion-as-schema, with implications for the relation between religion and coping’, The Psychology of Religion, Theoretical Approaches, eds. B. Spilka & D. N. McIntosh (Boulder, Colorado, 1997), p. 173.
 M. J. V. Fennell, ‘Depression’, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Psychiatric Problems, A practical guide (Oxford, 1989), p. 173.
 Fennell, ‘Depression’, p. 172.
 K. I. Pargament, The Psychology of Religions and Coping, Theory, Research, Practice (New York, 1997), p. 182.
 Pargament, The Psychology of Religions and Coping, pp. 294-5.
 Pargament, The Psychology of Religions and Coping, p. 301.
 N. Krause, L. M. Chatters, T. Meltzer & D. L. Morgan, ‘Using focus groups to explore the nature of prayer in late life’, Journal of Aging Studies, 14 (2002), p. 204.
 Pargament, The Psychology of Religions and Coping, p. 293.
 Pargament, The Psychology of Religions and Coping, p. 181.
 Quoted in M. Kanyoro, ‘The shape of God to come and the future of humanity’, A Different World is Possible, Concilium (2004), p. 53.
 Increasingly forms of congregational intercession involving action are being used (e.g. the placing of a stone, the lighting of a candle). I see no reason why the general drift of my arguments should not apply there, too. An awareness of the prophetic and visionary nature of intercession could still be encouraged to good effect through the prefacing / concluding comments to such activities.