Leading a congregation in a time of war is a particular challenge. Passions and fears in the parish can run high and hot. People will worry about their children and other members of their family in service overseas. Political differences between members may roil across church meetings. Even prayers can be politically charged with partisan politics.
Politicians and military analysts may quibble with the term, but we are at war. Some would say it is the result of failed leadership or foresight. Some would say it is only the on-going effects of a war which began long ago…or under a different president…or after 9/11. It does not matter now. We are at war.
As pastors, we are called to lead our churches in times of war and peace. And we are at war whether we want to admit it or not.
Here are ten thoughts about what an Anglican pastor/priest can do to prepare and lead a church in a time of war. There are many other ideas that others could contribute but these are things that I am thinking about for the coming season.
Pray the Great Litany. The Great Litany is the sine qua non of our spiritual understanding of nations at war. It speaks to the abject sinful nature of humanity and our need for total repentance; to our total reliance upon God for our help and salvation. It should be used, or sections of it, routinely as part personal devotions and public worship. Indeed, in times of war, the church needs to call people to deeper prayer.
Be Aware of Theology. Every church leader needs to understand how the church has had to deal with the ethical issue of war in times past. We should have a working knowledge of the “Just War Theory” and be able to answer questions about the ethics involved in wartime. Of course it is not universally accepted…but it is also not widely known.
Keep a Kingdom Identity. We should see our congregations as outposts of the Kingdom when we pray for our military and political leaders. I love my country and I consider myself a patriot. But in the Prayers of the People, I do not assume that God is an American. I do not display the American Flag week by week for this reason. (I will put the American flag on display for some of the patriotic holidays we remember on Sundays: July 4th, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day.) But our prayers need to reflect that we are all citizens of heaven first.
Remember that He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. During prayers in our public worship, we should pray for not only for our national leaders, but for leaders of “all the nations represented here in this congregation today”. This is one way we can acknowledge there are growing numbers of members and attendees of our church who are not US citizens.
Draw From the Wells. The rich traditions of our Prayer Book and the great Anglican heritage have given us such treasurers. Rather than trying to make up prayers that awaken the soul and stir the heart (which is not always easy to do off the cuff), why not look to the prayers that others have written in times of war, national anxiety, and hardship. Become acquainted with our prayer-laden Anglican history. It is rich.
Trust the Psalms. Consider a more extensive use of the Psalms for corporate reading and personal prayer. While some of the psalms (e.g. 91 and 147) have specific images that refer to warfare, most of the psalms are about praising a faithful God in any and all circumstances. That is the wonder of the Psalter: the verses seem to connect to the human experience in any circumstance or difficulty.
Teach and Love. Clearly, in these particular circumstances, pastors and preachers need to understand the major tenets and teaching of Islam and help the congregation understand them as well. It should go without saying that Christian believers should not consider all people of Muslim faith as terrorists or enemies. We are called to love.
Focus on Christ. For the preacher, war is a sad illustration of the folly of man, the sovereignty of God, and our need for a savior. And in certain ways, the reality of war creates heroes, leaders, human grief, tragic death, timely rescue, redemption, and loving care for those who suffer. These are the great themes that a preacher can use to point to the work of Christ on the Cross and his followers.
Life must go on. People will marry and be given in marriage (Luke 20:34). The day to day life of our people cannot stop until the war ends. This is the general theme of C. S. Lewis’ masterful sermon “Learning in a Time of War”. In fact, the entire collection of sermons in “A Weight of Glory”should be in our study. They were all written during or after a period of war.
Prepare. This year our parish will develop a disaster response plan for an emergency situation. Frankly, we have not thought out it much. What will your family do in case of terror attack? What will your parish family do? What plans do you have for ministry, worship, prayer and communication if the worst happens.
I am sure that many other Anglican leaders will have as many other thoughts about what to do in a time of war. But my point is simple: we are here. We are at war. We should start preparing our people (sadly, again) for ministry and mission in a time of war.
Some might ask how we can go forward during times like these. Many experience a feeling of insecurity and all of us see the many crises facing the globe: Ebola, Isis, terrorism, Russian aggression, and racism. And, there could be much more in the coming days as the current tensions in the world lead us to face the possibility of World War III. How can we find the strength to do our ministry in the face of such circumstances and dire prospects? Can we not escape? Should we even want to minister in days like these? Why not cry, as in 2 Chronicles 10:16: “What portion have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. Each of you to your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”Indeed, as we know the story, it sadly continues, “all Israel went to their tents.”
This is where C.S. Lewis (once again) is helpful. In the sermon referenced above, he says, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…”And then, toward the end of his sermon he answers the question whether scholars (or in our case clergy) can really justify the work they do in the face of war. Here is his answer:
…do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your present predicament more abnormal than it really is…. the war has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work….Favorable conditions never come.”
And so we as pastors and priests and parish leaders continue to work, and watch, and sometimes weep at night. But we continue in the knowledge that we are living in the light of something far greater and glorious than we can imagine.