At a recent meeting I stated that “I love Citizen Church” (the HTB church plant in the student district of Cardiff). I have only been to Citizen for two Sunday services and met some of the team on another occasion. But it is true. I do love it. The quality of the music, the welcome, being surrounded by hundreds of young people. I would go more often it were not for the full programme of services here at Llandaff Cathedral (four or five on a normal Sunday).
This blog post started as a review of a new book by Tyler Staton, an evangelical Pastor in the US, Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools (Hodder and Stoughton 2022).
It is an excellent book. I struggle to find books on prayer to recommend to people who tell me that they find praying hard. Many people come to me telling me that prayer is difficult. That they are in a ‘dark night of the soul’, that they have reached a desert in their prayer. This is a book I will recommend to them. Probably not a starter book for a new Christian, this is a book with a narrative style and North American vocabulary that will put some people off. But it is a book of deep spirituality and richness.
Staton’s take on prayer immediately appeals to me, he recognises the need to establish a rhythm of prayer in the early morning, which he did while still at High School. As much as anyone protests to me that they are not an early morning person I have yet to meet anyone that has established a fruitful, daily, pattern of prayer at any other time of day.
Staton is clear that the need for prayer is a need for solitude. He quotes Henri Nouwen on this which leads in to his quoting for me the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar. He quotes the Russian tradition of the poustinia. He recognises that we don’t seek outcomes in prayer.
The sections on the Lord’s Prayer are excellent and root this in Jesus’ response to the request from the disciples for him to teach them how to pray. His answer is, to pray.
The section of the book on ‘searching and naming’ sin would be good preparation for anyone making their confession. And the Chapter on the intercession of Christ could have been written by St Augustine in his commentaries on the psalms.
Two areas for me are lacking, unsurprisingly. I have come to the view that the only essentials of Christian prayer are psalmody and eucharist. Staton quotes the psalms frequently, but there is no mention of the Eucharist. There is virtually no mention of the church, it is ecclesially weak. But no book can cover everything. Simply by quoting the spiritual greats that he does he is being ecclesial.
One of the best features of this book is the real stories of people seeking to live Christianity seriously. That is the ‘Praying Like Monks’ of the title. This is a book for those who want their Christian lives to be ‘seven whole days not one in seven’.
Back to Citizen Church. There is much anxiety among those of us who have given our lives to more traditional patterns of ministry. ‘It’s a take over’. I have sought to find ways of understanding how the Spirit is at work in our time by looking at the church across the centuries. One of the ways I understand Citizen church and the evangelical churches (although that is not altogether a helpful label) is as the mendicant orders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Franciscan movement was much opposed by the established church of the time. They caused fear and anxiety, sometimes forbidden licenses to preach. They were popular and ‘successful’. Our response, as in all ministry needs to be generous. We have rich and deep veins of prayer to share. Traditional patterns of ministry are deeply embedded in the local community, in context. There is a story to be told, not fearfully but joyfully.
Catholic and Evangelical are not mutually opposed. It is trite to talk about a spectrum, but surely true. I love our worship here at Llandaff Cathedral, the utterly superb music, the sublime building. I would love our preaching to be more evangelical. To be Jesus focussed, confident on the converting power of Scripture, and the presence of the Holy Spirit giving profound spiritual experience.
I also love Citizen Church. I love the exploration into contemplative prayer that evangelical friends are making. More evangelicals approach me for spiritual direction now than catholics. “Prayer doesn’t begin with us, it begins with God.” Staton says. How right he is. It has always been the teaching of the church and the spiritual teachers that contemplation is a gift from God. I believe that we have nothing to fear. That God continues to be at work in His world and in His church. Prayer is His gift. And thank God for that.