My Liturgical Loophole
As Christians go, I’m not particularly a standout. Too ornery, too desultory, too sweary. Pastoral instincts invariably overwhelmed by prophetic fire. Kind of a scorched-earth witness.
But when I go to church — something I miss, so much, during this pandemic — part of the service includes the “Prayers of the People,” and one part of that prayer time entails praying for the nation’s government and leaders. And for the last four years, that has been something of a challenge. But I’ve found a workaround. I think God would approve of my creativity.
I am an Episcopalian, not by birth but by choice.
I chose to stow my little soul away within the nave of this sturdy old ark of a church because the liturgy and the prayers and the communion of saints became rivers of living water for me, in me. So I boarded the good old ship and I am braving the storm of my days somewhere down below decks, where the people who love wine and food and sex and gossip and slapstick comedy hang out together.
But on Sunday mornings, when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we say prayers for the whole order of creation, including the institution of human government.
Depending on which “Form” your church uses for the Prayers of the People, you may or may not find yourself being expected to pray by name for the President of the United states. Form V is particularly tricky this way, beginning with a nice generic intercession for “those in positions of public trust,” but then adding the optional “especially” followed by a blank.
I have attended services where the bulletin has filled in that blank with every leader at every level of government from the President of the United States down to the local sheriff. But that’s the prayer leader’s business, not mine. All I have to do is pray that these aforementioned people do justly.
Thankfully, my congregation uses Form VI, which names no names and wastes no time. I love it fondly, for it was the form used by the Episcopal church in which I was confirmed.
I also love Form VI it for its liturgical loophole when it comes to praying for “authorities.” The Leader says we are to pray “For this community, the nation, and the world,” and the people respond that we pray “For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.” I am quite certain that the 45th president of the United States has never worked for justice, freedom, and peace a day in his life, so I could pray that prayer without praying for him, and that was satisfying. Because I am way more petty than Jesus.
But if someone were to come up to me and say, “But the Bible says…”
Well, first I would walk away, because I don’t believe in walking up to complete strangers and bothering them with (usually misquoted and misinterpreted) Bible verses taken out of context.
But say they cornered me, so I couldn’t get away, and then they came at me with, “The Bible says we are to pray for those in authority over us, and that means you need to pray for our president,” I would be ready with an answer.
And the answer, amazingly, would not be, “Look to the imprecatory Psalms,” though they are certainly satisfying to whisper under your breath when “petty” can’t come close to describing the depth of your indignation and righteous anger.
Instead, my answer would go something like this…
If God has established authority among men, as the Bible says, what he has established in America is a system of authority in which government derives its power from the consent of the governed, as the Declaration of Independence has put it. The people are the ultimate authority. No one rules over us. No one commands us. We are the rulers of ourselves, and we select people and deputize them to handle the details and to execute the tasks we expect from them. So if you come at me telling me I am obligated to “pray for those in authority,” all I will do — all I have ever done these past four years, in fact — is to pray for my fellow citizens, my countrymen, my immigrant neighbors to govern ourselves well.
Tomorrow my prayers of the last four years will finally be answered.
And the day after tomorrow, I will be praying the same prayer I prayed during these four long, dark, difficult years: God protect this people, God bless this people, God grant this people wisdom, God help this people seek justice and love mercy.
But I will go ahead and fill in that blank and pray in particular for Joseph Robinette Biden.
For those who may be reading this who feel exactly the opposite that I do about the outgoing president and the incoming president, my advice would be this: pray for those in authority, for “We the people” to be wise and good and faithful. God knows we need all the prayer we can get.
You can pray for your favorite former president too; that’s no skin off my nose. I’m petty, but I’m not thatpetty.