The Prayer for the Church Militant and the postliberal era

When we consider the texts from the Prayer Book tradition's Holy Communion that have been lost in the process of liturgical revision, what comes first to mind?  The Prayer of Humble Access is often enthusiastically mentioned by those in the pews.  The Comfortable Words were a significant part of popular Anglican eucharistic piety, while the Words of Administration - dismissed as too wordy and clumsy by liturgical revisers - rather beautifully captured the balance of Prayer Book sacramental teaching.

We should also, however, consider the Prayer for the Church Militant.  It has been entirely lost in liturgical revision, replaced by vague, general directions, the content of which is normally at the whim of the person leading the intercessions.  This has been a loss of both the experience of common prayer and the theological vision which the Prayer for the Church Militant embodied, a theological vision of church, commonwealth, parish, and this "transitory life".

In the place of the common nature of the Prayer for the Church Militant - the consistency of which shapes our own intercessions as year passes year - there is the inherent instability in the lack of a common text, lacking the ability to form and shape the heart through the rhythm of repetition.  This necessarily also entails the loss of coherent theological vision, not least because contemporary intercessions entirely unsurprisingly reflect the theological poverty of the contemporary Church.

The late Roger Scruton described the Prayer for the Church Militant as "the clearest and most moving of all the Anglican invocations".  Clearest, perhaps, because it embodies - to use a phrase from John Hughes - 'Anglicanism as integral humanism' and, therefore, moving because it enfolds in prayer that which defines our common life: church catholic, commonwealth, parish, the experiences of our "transitory life", the "good example" of those who have gone before us.  Something along these lines is also implied in John Keble's words in Tract 43:

I mean, for instance, that the "Prayer for Christ’'s Church Militant" should be regularly used as appointed, after the morning sermon when there is no Communion ... It is to my mind one of the most perfect of uninspired compositions, and it is greatly to be wished that it might be made familiar to every ear and every heart.

(Note, of course, the reference to the Ante-Communion, an indication of the conventional High Church liturgical practice of the early Tractarian movement: Tract 43 was published in 1834.)

Keble's praise for the text should give us pause for thought.  Why have we abandoned a text that held together common prayer and theological richness?  On both counts, liturgical revisers disliked it.  The very principle and practice of common prayer - of heart and soul being shaped by means of a common, stable text - was rejected in favour of choice, an ideological and philosophical stance now subject to profound and searching critique.  And the theology of the Prayer was heartily disliked, its 'Anglicanism as integral humanism' rightly recognised as incompatible with the philosophical and theological commitments of, say, John Robinson's insistence that "our image of God must go", a call with inevitable consequences for the image of ourselves found in this Prayer.

Two works that come to mind in considering this are Tracey Rowland's Culture and The Thomist Tradition After Vatican II (2003) and Sam Brewitt-Taylor's Christian Radicalism in the Church of England, and the Invention of the British Sixties, 1957-1970 (2018).  Rowland, addressing the Roman Catholic context and the theological weakness of Gaudium et Spes, noted the naivety of ecclesial "enthusiasm for the potentialities inherent in mass culture" as opposed to "a culture rooted in a specifically Trinitarian Christocentrism" (which would be a fine description of the Prayer for the Church Militant).  Not dissimilarly, Brewitt-Taylor argues that "factors internal rather than external to the churches were crucial in the ‘making’ of the religious crisis" in 1960s Britain, with a school of theological thought within the Church of England vigorously insisting on ideological grounds that 'secular society' could not accept "supernaturalist Christianity".

Both works help to situate the rejection of the Prayer for the Church Militant and 'Anglicanism as integralist humanism' vision in favour of a pattern of intercession at the Eucharist more compatible with the theology of an assumed secular age. With the evident emptiness and exhaustion of a secular age and its nihilism, with philosophical, political, and cultural desire for greater rootedness and 'thickness' of meaning in our common life, the rejection of the Prayer for the Church Militant can be seen to have been a reflection of a now failed ideological and philosophical project.

In other words, a postliberal era needs the Prayer for the Church Militant .


  1. This is excellent, I wonder if people are put off by the word 'militant' sometimes! We had to endure the usual tour-de-force of concerns in yesterday's intercessions, a whistle-stop tour of all the things we (and presumably the omniscient Creator) should be worried about.

    1. Chris, many thanks for your comment. You may be right about 'militant'! You highlight a key problem with how contemporary rites approach intercessions - they do encourage this approach. One way to 'reform the reform' (so to speak) would be to use in contemporary rites a fixed form of intercessions akin to the Prayer for the Church Militant. What would make it difficult to use a straight, contemporary language version of the Prayer itself is that the political and social theology of contemporary Anglicanism is so weakened and so far removed from the Prayer that significant teaching would first be required before moving to it.


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