In the order of worship of most Episcopal churches — between the Nicene Creed and the congregational confession — comes the Prayers of the People, a broad intercessory orison that is remarkable in my experience for its specific request — by name — for God’s help for the president of the United States, the governor and the local mayor.
... We pray for our president, Donald; and our governor, Kevin, and our mayor, George ...
I remember the first time I heard it as a visitor to a tiny Episcopal church in Muskogee. I was an adult who had grown up Methodist with a bit of Presbyterianism along the way and some doses of my mother’s Disciples of Christ childhood and my father’s Southern Baptist background peppered over the top. I was a rainbow of Protestantism, but this felt different. Unlike anything I’d heard in church before. But completely right.
At the time, our president was Barack. Our governor was Mary. The mayor mentioned wasn’t even my own mayor or even anyone I had ever heard of before that day, but we prayed for him too.
I didn’t particularly imagine the efforts would lead God’s hand to touch any of those elected officials’ hearts, but it seemed like something important to do anyway ... because of the effect it would have on us.
As Thanksgiving approached, I reached out to the Rev. Margaret Rose, ecumenical and interreligious deputy to Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, to understand the practice better.
There’s a lot going on in the tradition, Rose said.
First, the prayer recognizes the congregation’s involvement in the political world. Like most Episcopal liturgical practices, it goes back to the Church of England, whose foundation was famously entangled in 16th century affairs of state. From Henry VIII on down, the Anglican tradition has been praying as if the congregants were part of a church and a nation and had responsibilities to both.
Second, it is essentially intercessory. The prayer asks for God’s wisdom and guidance for our elected leaders.
In 2017, when President Barack Obama was leaving office and President Trump was entering, Presiding Bishop Curry addressed the tradition in a formal statement on the church’s website.
“We pray that they will lead in the ways of justice and truth,” he wrote. “We pray that their leadership will truly serve not partisan interest but the common good.
“When we pray for them, we are actually praying for our nation, for our world, indeed we are praying for ourselves.”
Finally, the act of praying for the political leaders has to have an effect on the people making the prayers.
“When we pray for Donald, Barack, George, Bill, George, or Jimmy, presidents of the United States, we pray for their well-being, for they too are children of God, ...” Curry wrote in his statement.
Rose pointed out the significance of using the “Christian” names of the elected leaders. The act of making a public prayer for them as worthy of respect and dignity, even if the congregant disagrees with their policies.
“When we pray for a person, by name, we’re claiming them as made in the image of God,” she said. “The naming is pretty important.”
Prayers don’t necessarily mean political support.
In his statement, Curry describes growing up in a black congregation that prayed for leaders who opposed civil rights for black Americans.
“We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we marched on Washington,” Curry said. “Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us.
“And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”
An Episcopalian who supports Donald Trump might be praying for steadfastness in the president’s policy choices and the next Episcopalian in the pew might be praying for God to touch the president’s heart and change his policies completely.
But the act of prayer ought to have a common gentling effect on the political rhetoric of everyone making the prayer. If you devoutly pray for the president, governor and mayor, you would be free to oppose them politically and to do so with passion. But surely that passion would be tinged with civility — out of respect for your own beliefs.
I’m not an Episcopalian, but I love that every Sunday they pray for our elected leaders publicly, whether they voted for them or not. It treats our political allies and our opponents equally, like people worth praying for.