'If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord's Prayer.'
By Rowan WilliamsLast updated 2009-08-06
'If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord's Prayer.'
If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord's Prayer.
A conversation with The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams.
The prayer as a whole tells us we stand in a very vulnerable place. We stand in the middle of a human world where God's will is not the most automatic thing that people do. Where crisis faces us, where uncertainty is all around about tomorrow and where evil is powerfully at work.
To stand with dignity and freedom in a world like that, we need to know that God is Our Father. We need to know that whatever happens to us God is God, God's name and presence and power and word are holy and wonderful and that that glorious God has made us members of his family in a very intimate and direct way.
With that confidence, that kind of unchildish dependence, we're actually free. We know that there is a relationship that nothing can break.
And again, you could turn to Saint Paul on that to the end of chapter eight of his Letter to the Romans: "I know that nothing, nothing can separate me from the love of God and Jesus Christ". And to begin that prayer "Our Father" is really to say what Saint Paul is saying. Just as in the old hymn, here is an anchor that keeps the soul. Here is the anchorage that keeps us steady in this turbulent, difficult, nightmare world.
So the Lord's Prayer is a prayer that is utterly serious about the danger, the tragedy of the world.
It's not an easy prayer. It's not a prayer that pretends and it's also a prayer that requires our lives change. It requires that we become different sorts of people, but it acknowledges that that will only happen when we learn how to depend freely and lovingly on the God whose made himself Our Father.
It's an interesting question whether the Lord's Prayer is about us. I'd say in a sense it's about all human beings. It's about what it's like to be a human being: "And lead us not into temptation deliver us from evil. Give us this day our daily bread."
When I pray those those bits of the Lord's Prayer, I think not just of myself or of fellow Christians, I feel I'm praying it for all human beings: Give all of us what we need for life, the dignity and the hope. Keep all of us from being plunged into crisis we can't handle. Save all of us from the destructive power of evil.
So I'd be very reluctant to see it simply as a prayer only about Christians, although it is a prayer for Christians because it begins with the words "Our Father". But as we go deeper into it, we see more fully that it's a prayer about our human condition.
Every single bit of the Lord's Prayer is radical because every single bit of it challenges our assumptions about who we are and who God is and what the world is like.
And what it's praying for, and again this is something we forget because we use it so often, what it's praying for is the most revolutionary change you can imagine in the world we live in.
A change to a situation where what God wants can happen, to a situation where all the hungry are fed, to a situation where forgiveness is the first imperative in all our relationships.
And, as people will notice, that's not exactly like the world we inhabit at the moment. So if radical means looking for change from the roots up, yes, then it's radical.
Jesus knew how to compose prayers and stories that that were memorable. And if you put the Lord's Prayer back into Jesus' own language of Aramaic then the rhythm and even the rhyme of the words come through very clearly.
So he's teaching an easily memorable form of words, an easily memorable form of prayer. So it's meant to be transmitted, it's meant to be passed on, learned and taught.
When Jesus first teaches the prayer he says when you pray say "Our Father". So there is a very simple instruction there: these are the words that he gives to us.
But of course what the prayer does is to give us a kind of template for other sorts of prayer; it tells us that Christian prayer is always addressed to The Father. It's always prayed from where Jesus stands.
So real Christian praying is standing with Jesus and saying to God the words that Jesus would say to God, Father. All prayer has to be like that for Christians.
And all prayer has to be aware of our frailty, aware of the ways in which our lives are at risk.
All prayer has to acknowledge our need of forgiveness and our need to forgive.
So it's not so much that there would be other ways of saying it, we say those words simply because Jesus told us to. But from that prayer we can get a model, an inspiration for the nature of all the prayers we ever offer.
The prayer is often introduced in the worship of the church with the words "as our saviour Christ has taught us, we are bold to say", or "we dare to say" - we have the nerve to say "Our Father". We need to remember that it's a bold form of address to God.
And Jesus has given us the nerve to call God Father and you sometimes hear it introduced as "as our saviour has taught us we take heart and say", we sort of summon our strength and resource and, yes, we have the confidence to say these words.
If you take the Lord's Prayer bit by bit, there's probably not a great deal that you wouldn't find somewhere in the Old Testament or in Jewish prayers.
But what's absolutely unique about it is that it begins simply with the address "Our Father", nothing else. Nothing more elaborate, nothing more grand, but just that address as to the father of the family.
So the really distinctive thing is that all the bits of the Lord's Prayer are put in that context. This is the prayer of God's family. This is the prayer which you address to God in the most intimate of terms, not telling him how wonderful he is, not grovelling in any way before him, but just coming with complete confidence.
And that must have sounded quite strange and quite, quite shocking to some people in Jesus' own day.
In fact the one thing that everybody seems to have remembered about Jesus' own prayers is that he called God "Father", "Abba", the familiar, the intimate word in his own language.
He doesn't call God "Lord" or "Master" or "Creator" first; he calls God "Father" first.
And in the Gospel of John after the Resurrection when he meets Mary Magdalene, Jesus says: "I'm ascending to my father and your father".
When Jesus talks about "fathers" and "children" he gives us quite a resourceful picture of relationships.
Think of the story of the prodigal son... The son who stays at home actually never really grows up. The son who goes on adventures away, makes mistakes, learns, says "sorry", comes back, somehow does grow up. He's a grown up child of the father.
And Jesus' teaching and the teaching of Saint Paul tell us that to depend on God completely as Father is not to be stuck in a childish helplessness. It's to be able to take risks, knowing that the Father will always be there to forgive and give you new beginnings.
And that's how we grow up. That's how we become real adults. And I don't think either Jesus or Saint Paul or anybody else in the New Testament wants us to be childish in our relationship.
And Jesus' own life is the measure of that. He's completely dependent on God, and yet he's as free as anybody could be imagined to be. Free to take risks, to face suffering and death because the Father is there, so "Father" is also what he says on the cross. "Father into your hands I commend my spirit."
And when the words "Our Father" are said we ought perhaps to think of that little Resurrection incident where Jesus says to a close friend and follower, the relationship I have with God can be your relationship with God as well. You and I form a We together before God.
And so as soon as you've said the first words Our Father you've said: I've been given a share in Jesus' relationship with God. I don't have to work out my relationship with God from scratch. I don't have to climb a long long ladder up to heaven, I've been invited into this family relationship and that's the gift that every prayer begins with.
So the very words we start with tell us a huge amount about who we are as Christians, about our Christian doctrine and belief.
When we go on to say "who art in heaven", we're saying Heaven, God's place, God's home is also our home.
"Our citizenship", says St Paul in one of his letters, "is in heaven"; that is, heaven is where we belong.
And the kind of relationship that exists in God's presence in heaven is a relationship of love and trust and intimacy and praise that can be ours here and now.
Short, simple words, and yet they tell us that heaven is here on earth because of Jesus, and into that we can enter.
"Hallowed be thy name" is one of those phrases that's most strange to us, isn't it? But I want to see it against the background of the Old Testament's idea that the name of God is something in itself immensely beautiful and powerful. The name of God is God's word, God's presence.
And to ask that God's name be hallowed, that God's name be looked upon as holy, is to ask that in the world people will understand the presence of God among them with awe and reverence, and will not use the name or the idea of God as a kind of weapon to put other people down, or as a sort of magic to make themselves feel safe. But rather approach the idea of God, the name of God, the word of God, with the veneration and humility that's demanded.
In the Jewish texts of Jesus' own day, the commandment about not taking God's name in the vain, from the Ten Commandments, is often understood as uniting the name of God with a curse - using the name of God as a kind of magic word - and that's to trivialise the name of God, it's to bring it down to our level, to try and make God a tool for our purposes.
So "Hallowed be thy name" means: understand what you're talking about when you're talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening that we can imagine.
All the more extraordinary that we should be able to approach God as Father.
The idea of the Kingdom coming was very near the centre of Jesus' teaching.
The Kingdom is not a place or a system; it's just a state of affairs when God is in charge. It's the kingship of God if you like. It's the state in which God really is acknowledged to be directing and giving meaning to everything.
So we pray "God's Kingdom come", meaning let the world be transparent to God, let God's will and purpose and God's nature show through in every state of affairs, because that's what it is for God to be King.
It's not for God to be ordering around, but for God to be visible everywhere, for God to come through things in his glory.
"Thy Kingdom come", is saying let the world open out to the depth of God's love that is really at the root of it all.
And Jesus himself tells us that the Kingdom comes in unexpected ways; it doesn't just come with a great clap of thunder at the end of time, it grows in our midst secretly. It comes through in quirky little moments when people do extraordinary things, take extraordinary risks and you think ah yes, that's a life in which God is showing through.
And Jesus' parables again tell us about people who give up everything because they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom; they catch a glimpse of God's beauty.
So that's what we're praying for: let the world show God, let God come through.
"Thy will be done" of course is quite like "Thy kingdom come". It's a typical bit of Hebrew poetry, the parallel between the first and the second bit of the phrase.
We're praying there that the whole universe responds to the gift of God in the same kind of way.
We're praying that in the very elaborate version of the old Book of Common Prayer; just as the angels do God's service in heaven so we may reflect that service on earth.
And that's to say that all through the universe, God's glory and God's beauty is being reflected back to God by the stars and the planets, by the angels, by the plants and the animals around us. Things just being the way they are reflect God's glory, do God's will.
We human beings unfortunately have a kind of tone deafness about God's will; we have to learn to sing in tune with all this.
Somewhere, some other levels of reality, God's will is done. Here on earth, among us human beings, it isn't very much, and so we pray that we may be brought into tune, that we may not be the only ones singing flat in the great choir of the universe.
Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of "give us this day our daily bread", because the word that's used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you hardly find anywhere else.
It probably means daily, it probably means the stuff we need to survive, but at least some people in the early church understood it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; "give us today tomorrow's bread".
And they thought that might mean "give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God": give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father.
And so that connects for a lot of Christians with Holy Communion. Of course, because Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it's very much our daily bread - the food we need to keep going - but it's also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven at his table at his banquet, as the gospels put it.
So lots of meanings there, lots of layers. But I don't think there's one meaning that we just have to settle down with. The simple meaning keep us going, give us what we need is all we really need to go on. And yet as soon as we start unpicking that, we ask: well, what do we really need?
We don't "live by bread alone" says Jesus himself, "but by every word coming from God's mouth".
We don't live just by having our material needs fulfilled, we need something more: and one of the things more that we need is hope, hope for tomorrow.
And so perhaps that ghost of an idea, that shadow of an idea that this is also bread for tomorrow and tomorrow's bread, can come in somewhere.
"Forgive us our trespasses" is in some ways the hardest bit of the Lord's Prayer to pray, because it tells us straight away that to pray is also to be willing to change.
And it takes a lot of nerve to come before God and say forgive me because I have forgiven someone else. And I don't always feel I'm really up to making that that kind of claim on God. But I think it's saying that it's through God's forgiveness of us that we learn how to forgive. It's in our capacity to forgive that we show we've been forgiven.
It reminds us that our own ability to forgive comes from the fact that we're aware of God's forgiveness of us and that unless that really sinks in then we shan't be able to forgive. And it's no good then turning back to God and saying forgive me, I haven't even begun to hear what forgiveness means, I don't know the meaning of the word.
Jesus tells us that very powerful story about the King's servant who's let off his debt and then goes straight off and puts another servant in prison because he owes him a small amount of money. And he underlines the point there that unless you forgive you can't receive forgiveness; you've just made yourself incapable of receiving forgiveness.
So it's a bit of a vicious circle of I don't forgive I can't be forgiven. If I can't hear the word of forgiveness and really let it change me, then I shan't be able, I shan't be free to forgive, so this is quite a sobering prayer about forgiveness.
But there's a wonderful image in one of the early church fathers about this. He says that it's a bit like teaching a child to do something. The parent does it carefully a few times, then steps back and says now you show me. God forgives us and then steps back and says now you show me how to forgive.
We have to see this first of all in the context of Jesus' own day.
His teaching often turns back to this idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we're really capable of, just as we often say you don't know what someone's made of until they're under pressure. We're coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line.
And Jesus says to us, don't assume you know the answer to that sort of question. Don't assume you know how much you're capable of. Pray that when the time of trial comes, when things get really difficult, you will have the resource to meet it.
Now the words "lead us not into temptation" don't quite capture all of that because temptation for us tends to mean just a sort of impulse to do unworthy or sinful things.
But the word means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that's coming, this huge crisis that's coming. Lead us not into crisis, don't, please God don't push us into the time of crisis before you've made us ready for it. Don't push us until you've given us what we need to face it.
And that is a good prayer to pray, because for each one of us there are times of crisis when we discover what we're made of and sometimes it's not very pleasant and we realise we're not up to it.
So it's worthwhile praying to God, give us what we need to face crisis when it comes, and please, God, don't let us be precipitated into that too soon.
So again, it's connected with "deliver us from evil", set us free. Set us free from all those things, the fears, the sins, the selfish habits that keep us prisoner and that make us unable to face crisis.
It probably originally meant save us from the Evil One. Because the time of crisis is when the Devil, the enemy of humanity, is really making hay. He's having a wonderful time, because at a time when there's lots of fear and lots of uncertainty, then the Devil can come in and manipulate us and intensify, reinforce all that's most inhuman in us.
And whether or not people these days believe in a personal devil, I think the idea that the principle or the power of evil coming in to make the most of our weakness and our fear, that still makes sense. And we can still quite rightly pray to be delivered from that.