While I have often prayed for the acceptance of change when it comes, I do not always find the ability to be accepting without some struggle. The most recent conflict arose in my parish with the advent of a new rector. Whenever there is a changing of the guard, other elements of parish life change as well. Some are well received and others maybe not so much. The change that got me riled up in my parish was the removal of the names of those for whom we pray during the prayers for the people. They weren’t removed, the names were reduced to fine print along the side of the service leaflet.
Before our new pastor, the names were not only included in the prayers themselves as in; “we pray for those of us who are ill: Jane, Robert, etc.” These people who had asked for our prayers had their names included in the body of the prayer, the names were in bold, and the congregation said the first names of each person. Talk about the power of prayer, names lifted-up by 200 people all at once. Not only that, when you were saying the prayers for those who needed them, you were connecting and thinking about the folks in need. It is a compelling intimacy.
My personal favorite was the prayers for those in the parish who are serving in our armed forces. Right there in the middle of that list of names being sent up to the heavens was my son. Each Sunday, I heard his name, felt proud and blessed, and I must confess a bit teary-eyed. With the arrival of the new pastor, my son was reduced to the fine print and the military barely mentioned.
I have written elsewhere about the Episcopal church and its lack of support, at least from my perspective of its members and their families in the military (see My Son Needs a Chaplin). I do not understand this aversion to offering support to our members and those serving in the military. I do appreciate a shortage of Chaplains that has occurred for numerous reasons, but I do not understand why my beloved church doesn’t do anything to help fill the vacuum. Now, the lowest of blows to my son and his fellow servicemen and women they are reduced to the fine print, as if we are ashamed of them. Instead of sending them our prayers and supporting their families, we are inching their names closer to the edge of the margins in the hope they will fall off the page.
When my husband had a massive heart attack, in my old parish, they handled it differently. I called the church to ask that his name be placed on the prayer list, and within hours my then Priest showed up at the hospital. I asked him why, since I hadn’t explicitly requested that he come to see us. His reply was simple. I check the request for prayers every day, and when I saw your request, I had to go and see what I could do to help you and to pray. Friends tell me that the following Sunday, my husband’s name was not only read, but he was identified as my husband and my children’s father. As someone who wrestles with pray; how to do it, what to ask for etc. (see The Power of Prayer) this was my gold standard of how it was supposed to work.
Every parish handles the “prayer list” differently, and during the prayers for the people they may have a different approach, but in my experience, I have never seen the names of the dead, sick and serving in the military reduced to point 6 typeface that requires a magnifying glass if you are over a certain age. This is the kind of change I have to work at accepting. Maybe I am just a spoiled, self-centered Mom who wants to hear her son’s name and know that the parish has his back. But I find it hard to grasp. From the pulpit, we as Episcopalians weekly hear homilies about deepening our faith. We are admonished to bring more prayer into our lives and broaden our spiritual selves. We are told to do God’s work and to encourage others to do likewise. Why then do we reduce members of our parishes who need all of the above and our support to be proclaimed, to fine print or a footnote or something on the back cover of the leaflet?
The Episcopal Church is famous for what today would be hashtags. Monikers like “God’s Frozen Chosen” comes to mind. Mainstream faiths are often quoted as lamenting the reduction of membership and while there are of course exceptions an inability to grow has been an ongoing struggle. I can’t help but think that if I, an Episcopalian my entire life, feels estranged because of this “change” in the treatment of those in need of prayers, it may be indicative of an organization with problems reaching folks. For most people, religion has two levels (at least). There is a personal level where our faith helps us get by and to live a more meaningful and blessed life. The other level is the catholic and apostolic church, which we see as the outreach to the world and most especially those in need. To love Christ and walk in his ways a true Christian does not judge but welcomes all, loves all, and brings comfort to all. The two levels must exist in equal parts side by side. The two parts of our practicing faith must give to all and each other within our parish. If we are reducing the prayers of the actual people to the fine print, we are short-changing one level completely. If we continue to decrease the familiarity in the parishes to those among us in need, while still praying for churches in Africa and neighboring parishes where they are in the most part unknown to us, we are failing. We are returning to the frozen chosen, the remote, intellectual faith that prays for the whole state of Christ’s church but overlooks the people in the pews.