Who would have thought it? The Church of England finally trending on Twitter! What has caused the fuss? This simple tweet got the twitterati all in a tizz. Some of Dawkins' 1.36 million followers found it all a bit much.
Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family https://t.co/KxBBkBrECk— Church of England (@c_of_e) February 12, 2016
Please pray for him for a full recovery https://t.co/rmDkIP5ADS— Arun Arora (@RevArun) February 12, 2016
Is it insulting to offer a prayer for Professor Dawkins? Is it sarcasm and mocking? Rev Arun Arora, the head of communications for the Church of England, says it was well meant. Others regard it as trolling, ironic and somewhat nasty.
Speaking on the BBC, Keith Porteous Wood from the National Secular Society said, "I have to take it on face value, that the Church has got the welfare of one of its major opponents in their heart when they say this". He went on to quote a bishop saying it was cheap and then suggesting it was done as a publicity stunt. He also took the opportunity to gloat that the church was irrelevant and out of touch on issues of sexuality, end of life issues and abortion. The British Humanists at least had the sense not to comment.
What intrigues me is what we learn from this rather ridiculous episode about the state of Britain and the Church today.
1. The silly season is now always in vogue. There was a time when newspapers, radio stations and TV had proper journalists who investigated and reported the news. When they went on holiday in the summer we had the 'silly season' where daft stories of no particular consequence were used as fillers. Now with the decline of proper journalism and news gathering and the increase in social media, we find that the silly season is with us all the time. How else can you explain this ridiculous non-story making it to the mainstream news?
2. The Church of England Communications department is not all that good at communicating. They are not known for being humorous or provocative so I doubt that this was done either as a joke or as irony. They were trying to be nice and it backfired. Did nobody have the nous to work out that this is how it would be perceived? The other problem is the simple one that there are many celebrities who are unwell and the CofE tends not to tweet about them. I guess this was an attempt to show that Christians pray for their enemies, but prayer is something that is done in secret – not paraded on social media to make a point. Of course it's not just the Church of England. I received several tweets from people who said they were praying for Dawkins. And sadly a couple from people who said it was what he deserved. Such tweets are going to be picked up and used as evidence against the Gospel.
3. There is a wide open door for Christians to pray and answer people's questions in our sceptical, searching secular society. I have been in many homes and talked to many people and it is rare for someone to decline if you offer to pray for them. Try Praying points out that 20 million people in the UK pray and that one in three UK citizens believe that God will answer their prayers. There are many people who do not come to church and who would not consider it – but still pray, or would be happy to know that you are praying for them. Of course when someone says 'I'm praying for you' it may have as little consequence as a politician who never prays saying, after a disaster 'our prayers are with the victims'. I remember after I came out of hospital recovering from a serious illness receiving a card from a couple of atheists who stated "David, we are praying for you". I could not resist the reply, "To whom?!"
4. The Church in many instances does not know how to answer basic questions our society has. Why do I say that? I listened to a vicar from Melrose on the BBC who was asked some great questions but instead of presenting the good news of Jesus, gave the kind of wishy-washy answers that have people crying 'cup of tea, vicar' before they head for the pub. First he smugly criticised Christians who offer to pray for people: "nobody likes smug Christian who says 'I'll pray for you' in that way which suggests they have a hotline to God". It was a judgemental, silly and harmful comment. Offering to pray for someone is not necessarily smug.
Then he agreed with Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society about their shibboleth issues 'sexuality, abortion and end of life issues'. Don't worry; he implied 'generous Christians' are just like you. We are not all creationist homophobes. Thereby adding fuel to the secularist fire instead of seeking to challenge their prejudice.
He went on to mock the gospel by saying he wouldn't pray for this atheist friends to stop being atheists because "I like them just as they are." Imagine a non-Christian listening to that. They are obviously going to take from that, that the words of Jesus about heaven, hell, repentance, forgiveness, freedom, the new life and the need for a new birth, are meaningless. As long as we are 'nice' and just the way we are who needs Jesus, the cross, or prayer?
5. The Church needs to relearn the meaning and power of prayer. Our religious leader/spokesperson told the BBC that prayer was effectively wishful thinking which motivates us to do good, rather that us coming before the Almighty, all powerful, all knowing Creator of the Universe who is able to do far more than we can ask or think. Our feelings in our hearts replace our Father in Heaven. The vicar told the journalists who asked if he expected prayer to be answered that, no, he did not expect people to be healed in answer to prayer. I am not of the 'name it and claim it' school, the kind of theology that says if only you have enough faith then you can bribe God into acting on your behalf, but it seems to me that the opposite is just as bad. If God never acts because of prayer, then why bother? Forgive me a personal reference. I mentioned already a serious illness I had four years ago. I was not supposed to live and my wife was told to prepare for the worst. My whole denomination was called to pray on one particular Sunday. After that Sunday I recovered (according to my Muslim surgeon it was a miracle). It seems that some 'Christians' would rather believe in co-incidence than God actually answering our prayers! Some non-Christians seem to grasp it a whole lot better.
I leave you with a confession. Don't tell anyone, but I do pray for Richard Dawkins. I have a wonderful prayer app (the internet can be used for great things!) and Richard Dawkins is, and has been on it for years. Since writing The Dawkins Letters I have tried to pray for his salvation on a regular basis. Not just because I think he would be a marvellous advocate for Christianity, but also primarily because my hearts desire and prayer for the Dawkinites, is that they may be saved. When I heard of his illness it only caused me to pray more – for his physical and spiritual health. And I was so glad on Sunday that in our wee church prayer meeting there were those who openly and honestly prayed for him. There is no greater thing that we can do for our enemies than love and pray for them.
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.