Vacuous calls to prayer and propagating a false gospel must at least give us pause, surely?

There was an interview on the Sunday programme on Radio 4 with the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell. In it, the Archbishop was asked about his push for a day of prayer and how he interprets an article that claims a fifth of Church of England adherents are wandering off and the church is planning to make major cuts to clergy. He was also, somewhat bizarrely, asked for his views on the COVID-19 vaccine plans, which strike me as entirely outside of his purview, but there you go. You can listen to the interview here (37.00-41.30 mins).

On the face of it, I can understand why some would be perplexed about church ministers being less than thrilled by the suggestion of a day of prayer. Aren’t we in the business of wanting people to pray? I linked to an article by John Stevens, in my Snippets from the Interweb this past Sunday, outlining why some of us aren’t enamoured by this call.

But this interview on the Sunday programme underlines the points John was making. Let me just note a couple of things. First, the Archbishop claimed prayer changes things and is an expression of love. Well, so far, fair enough. But he went on to insist that prayer changes things (yes, but there may be some caveats to make here that we’ll come onto later) then proceeded to claim that prayer is ‘what God is asking me to do’ which is ‘to be the very best person I can be’. So, in his call to the nation to pray to the God of the Bible, the Archibishop of York manages to proffer a gospel that is not only nowhere to be found in the Bible, but a message that Jesus specifically called out in the Pharisees over and over again. Only, unlike the Pharisees who clearly did believe in an objective legal standard, it is a strange works-based righteousness that insists Jesus calls me to be the best person I can be, whilst at the same time implying a subjectivity to what constitutes being ‘the best person’ that descends into some sort of universalism. So, on the one hand, try with all your might to be the best person you can be but, on the other, however you subjectively define ‘being the best person’ is absolutely fine with Jesus. This, folks, is an Archbishop of the Church of England denying the gospel.

Perhaps you think I’m being unfair. Maybe you feel I’m reading a bit too much into what is being said. Well, if you listen further, he goes on. He argues that simply by praying we become ‘an agent of God’s goodness, an agent of change in the world’, linking this directly to his view that prayer is merely the means of God changing us so that ‘I can be the best person I can be’. In other words, I pray so that God may change me (which, of itself, is reasonable) and to make me more like Jesus (which is also right and proper), but which is then defined as basically being a good, moral person and – as God makes us even nicer people than we were before – the world gets changed so that ‘by praying, we can make a difference and be that difference’. So, according to the Archbishop of York, prayer is merely God’s means of making us nicer people who will go out and be nice to others.

But perhaps you still think I’m being a little unkind. Maybe I’m just not giving him the charity a short spot on the radio deserves? Well, he said a bit more still. He said that they were actively inviting everyone to pray. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ you might think. The interviewer was left to make the point (or, rather, ask the question), ‘this is an explicitly Christian prayer?’ You’d think the answer would be so obvious as to not need asking, but you never can quite tell with the Church of England. But don’t worry, the Archbishop was on hand to make sure that the phrase ‘explicitly Christian’ didn’t stick in the mind too long. We wouldn’t want that! The interviewer noted that ‘you hope that it might be said by people with no faith at all’. ‘Yes’ came the definite reply, going on to insist that ‘I believe everybody can pray’. Well, everybody can pray, but the distinct impression given was that, in doing so, God would listen. But, of course, outside of Christ, God does not listen to prayer. Prayers offered to false gods are not acknowledged and those offered out of unbelief are not heard either. Just as Pope Francis was wrong when he encouraged Muslims, and all who believed in any god, to pray to end the coronavirus, so too the Archbishop of York is wrong to call on those who deny Christ, or who don’t even believe in God, to pray to him.

Psalm 145 is clear on this issue:

The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.

Those who call upon the Lord apart from his truth – apart from through the Word who is truth – God will not hear them. As Jordan Standridge rightly noted when addressing this very question:

This is a clear pattern in scripture. When the Pharisee prays, Luke points out the fact that he is “praying to himself” thereby stating that God isn’t listening (Luke 18:11), later John says, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” Implying that God hears us when we pray according to His will. (1 John 5:14) Obviously he hears everything, but John is emphasizing the fact that God listens and answers those who want His will to be done above all else.

Jesus Christ was very clear when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the father but through me.” John 14:6

This verse not only teaches that Jesus Himself is the truth but it also instructs us that without belief in Him and the possession of His righteousness no one can approach God. 

It is not unloving of us to point out this fact. I would say that pointing this out and teaching this truth will only lead believers to grow in their love for the lost. In the same way, it will only be helpful for unbelievers to hear that in order for God to hear them that they must repent of their sin, repent of their pride and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone. Then and only then will they be able to boldly approach the throne of the Lord, not because of their own righteousness but because of Christ’s.

But when the Archbishop of York encourages those who do not believe in God – and those who worship false gods – to pray to the God who is there, he is encouraging them to do what will fall on deaf ears apart from repenting of their sin and trusting in Christ first. Why would an Archbishop encourage people to do what is (minimally) pointless and, worse, affirm them in the false comfort that God is somehow alright with them as they are as long as they just pray? Ultimately, it is because he proclaims a false gospel of moral improvement. God simply wants to make us more like Jesus, which really just means ‘being the best person I can be’. So, pray – whether you believe in God or not; whether you trust Christ or not – because God is only concerned with making us nicer and the world a more pleasant place. It was telling that the Archbishop so defined prayer that, not only a lack of belief in God was alright, but not even praying actually amounted to prayer! A mere desire to pray to a God you don’t believe in (whatever that looks like) is actually praying, according to Stephen Cottrell, so that merely thinking about maybe praying is praying and God will definitely make you nicer as a result.

Now, I appreciate you might get this sort of claptrap in churches from time to time. Of course, people in churches periodically say and do things that are theologically a little off-beam. But when that nonsense is coming from the second most significant figure, the leading figure in one of only two provinces of your entire communion, might we need to be a little more robust that, ‘why would I leave just because “some people” say some silly things in the church?’ I appreciate that could be valid if it was just “some people”, but when it is your second most significant figure denying the most basic truths of what your church exists to commend, the argument is a little hollow.

This is the man to whom clergy are answerable. This is the man under whom other bishops operate, to whom individual incumbents must submit. To do otherwise is to reject the episcopal system altogether. Flying bishops and the like do not really help because they, too, work under the bishop in whatever diocese they operate and even those under whom many Evangelicals place themselves, such as the Bishop of Maidstone, remains answerable to those who are both in agreement with the pronouncements of Stephen Cottrell or happy enough with them that they gladly appoint him to senior position. These are the men to whom sound Evangelicals are submitting themselves. At what point do we have to accept that we are giving succour to them by continuing in communion with them and submitting to their authority?

Do not not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.

1 Timothy 5:22

Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and do not greet him; for the one who greets him shares in his evil works.

2 John 1:9-11

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead.

Jude 1:12