Tuesday, 4 July 2017

McComb and Fosdick

 Samuel McComb

I have picked up a nicely bound edition of A Book of Prayers for Public and Private Use (1912) inscribed by its author, Samuel McComb.  McComb (1864–1938) was raised in Belfast and educated at Oxford. He was professor of church history at Queens University in Ontario and served as minister of Presbyterian churches in England and New York City.  He became a spokesman for the Emmanuel Movement in the US, which pioneered a psychologically-based approach to the religious healing of alcoholism and drug addiction. McComb subsequently left the US for an ecclesiastical post in Nice. A popular speaker and an excellent writer, he influenced the liberal theology and social activism of such prominent American Christians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 McComb's book consists of thirty general prayers, a second part of intercessory and personal prayers and a third of prayers for personal use.  The second part includes prayers for persons afflicted with neurasthenia, which is an old term for emotional ill-health, and for persons striving to overcome the alcohol habit, reflecting McComb's interest in addiction.  Some of the prayers are out of date in terms of language and of gender roles, for example, there is one for a mother, but not a father, grieving for a wayward child, but other prayers are worded to be used for either sex, with gender-specific words marked in italics so that the alternative can be used.  There is also a little, perhaps unintentional, humour in the 'Prayer for a Person Who Cannot Pray', which is for those who need to 'unburden their spirit'.  Although this prayer, like the others, is couched in traditional Christian language, it works for the non-theist if phrases and sentences in the active voice, with 'God' or other such words as the subject, are re-written in the passive voice.

The Prayers of 1912 are as elegant as their binding.  They are designed to supplement not replace the collects of the Book of Common Prayer and are in the same exalted language but the thoughts they reflect are generous and humane without the self-flagellating emphasis on sin which spoils the BCP.  In the preface, and reflecting his progressive Christianity, McComb says that each generation must win the truth for itself and that the truth so won must touch deeply the springs of its religious life and in this way influence its devotional feelings.  What McComb is saying in Quaker terms is that a prayer book must speak to our condition.  Accordingly, while the BCP requires us to make a regular, dreary and oppressive confession of our sins, McComb presents us with scope for positive and life-enhancing religious practice, elegantly expressing the potential for personal growth in the religious and devotional life.  For example, in Prayer IV we are invited to pray on how instead of enjoying life 'we have sunk back into the complainings of our narrow and blinded souls'. Elsewhere, in Prayer V, he says that when we think of God we are troubled in our consciences yet continue to be drawn to God and to seek to live a spiritual life.  He quotes St Augustine's 'Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts our restless till they find rest [I prefer 'abide'] in Thee'.

Rowan Williams says of St Augustine that 'more clearly than any other early Christian writer, he presents a vision of the entirety of human experience caught up into grace and into God, of providence at work in sin, doubt, confusion, complex and imperfect motivation' (Wound of Knowledge location 1538/3074).  McComb also understands the importance of generosity of spirit and compassion when so often we are afflicted with 'the coldness of our affections', with the unhappiness of spiritual aridity and have cause to lament 'the prayerlessness of our lives'. He has some excellent insights into the nature of religious experience.  For example, in Prayer VIII he says 'Touch us, O our Father, with a feeling of Thy great realities, for though our thought about Thee is better than our words, our experience of Thee is better than our thought'.  This resonates with Quakers, for whom experience is of the essence.

 His book of prayers offers exalted language combined with a understanding of the human condition using elements of modern positive psychology as well as of traditional Christian spirituality.  I am surprised McComb is a forgotten figure and that there seems to be little attempt to follow his example of a richly wrought but insightful and deep language of prayer.


In the same vein as McComb is the American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878 – October 5, 1969). Indeed, his The Meaning of Prayer (1915) includes several of McComb's prayers and it is likely the two men were known to each personally.  The book is available on Kindle, as is its companion volume, The Meaning of Faith (1917).

Fosdick became a central figure in the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th Century, according to Wikipedia.  The modernist controversy was throughout Christendom. Modernist thought was condemned by the ultra-conservative Pope Pius X in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, ‘on the doctrine of the modernist,’ issued in 1907.  John William Graham (1859-1932) was the leading Quaker modernist of his time who wrestled with the religious implications of social Darwinianism.  Fosdick may be characterised as a liberal and modernist but, as with Edmund Harvey, this should not be allowed to cloud our understanding of the lasting value of his work.

Fosdick might be styled an advocate of muscular, even phallocentric, Christianity.  For example, one of his books is entitled The Manhood of the Master, which could be the title of some BDSM gay porn.  His The Meaning of Prayer (1915) uses imagery which seems strange to modern Christians.  For example, one chapter is on prayer and the reign of law, while another is one prayer as a battlefield. However, again, simply to bestow dismissive labels on Fosdick's work would not to be doing justice to it, for like McComb he understands the reality of the spiritual life, not as a material, still less an economic or political, situation but as human experience in all its fullness.  He says in his 1917 book:
The peril of religion is that vital experience shall be resolved into a formula of explanation, and that men, grasping the formula, shall suppose themselves thereby to possess the experience.
Similarly, he understands the challenges of a spiritual life and our human follibles, so that his 1915 book contains a chapter on hindrances and difficulties, and on unanswered prayer.

Fosdick rejoices in the continuity of Christian history.  From the first, figures like St Augustine and Thomas a Kempis have seen that prayer is about the search of the soul for God rather than for His gifts.  The depth and candour of the prayers of St Augustine which Fosdick reproduces are particularly striking in this respect. Fosdick introduces the reader to religious figures such as Jeremy Taylor, the reputed Shakespeare of the Puritans, though I find his work lacks the love and joy which should be at least a part of the spiritual life.

Like Harvey, Fosdick is a believer in moral progress:
In social advance, some Edmund Burke, statesman of the first magnitude, basing his judgment on the established experience of the race, can call slavery an incurable evil and say that there is not the slightest hope that trade in slaves can be stopped; and yet within eighty-two years the race can feel its way forward to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Much the same could be said about same-sex marriage, which would have been inconceivable when homosexuality was first decriminalised.  However, moral progress is not just a matter of the modification of systems but of inward change in the personality (a word which both Harvey and Fosdick use in its fullest meaning). 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Psalm 32 and the skill of naming

The first five verses of Ps 32 are as follows, from the New Revised Standard Version:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

The meaning of ‘Selah’ is somewhat obscure but is generally thought to indicate a pause in sung recitation of the psalm.  However, what is striking about the passage is that it points to the psychological truth that to confess a misdeed, whether in thought or action, is a step to resolve it.  If we keep silent then the internal confusion and stress only increases: ‘my body wasted away’.  Confession is not just good for the soul, it is good for the body too. 

This psalm is not only an illustration of the theological truth of the availability of God’s forgiveness but it also contains a psychological truth.  Through stress and internal conflict handled creatively we can change and grow.  Mary Lou Leavitt, in her 1986 entry in Quaker Faith & Practice (4th edition, 20.71) offers three skills entailed in such creative handling of stress and conflict.  The first skill is naming: being clear and honest about the problem and owning it.  The ability to name what is going on, is crucial to getting out into the open the feelings underlying stress or conflict.  Such a skill is dangerous. It may seem like stirring up trouble where there wasn’t any problem. It needs to be done tactfully, carefully  and caringly, whether with oneself or with others.   It is a preliminary to the next steps of listening and letting go.