Just Another Brit Offering Thoughts On Inauguration Prayers

Today’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth (what’s the obsession with numbers?) President of the USA was the first one I have watched on the Internet. Thank you, BBC. I guess it was appropriate, given the way Obama leveraged the web in his campaign.

Actually, I can’t remember the last one I watched on the small screen. Watching on the web was a pragmatic decision, knowing that if I put it on the television, the children would cry out for Nick Junior.

I didn’t catch the whole shebang, since I was dashing in and out of the study from the kitchen where I was cooking the family meal. What I saw of Obama impressed me. Yes, the words of his speech were very general, but I don’t see how they could be otherwise. I felt he communicated honesty and realism with his evident oratorical gifts. As everyone says, the real test will be in the days to come. Well, no surprise there.

I caught a fair bit of Rick Warren’s prayer, but again not all of it. The whole of it was inevitably up on YouTube rather quickly:

If I thought about it, there would probably be parts with which I would quibble. However, it seemed to me that the tone of Warren’s prayer was one of evangelical conviction combined with a reaching out rather than a tone of condemnation. You may feel differently – do say below.

I found quite a contrast with Gene Robinson’s prayer earlier in the week, also available on YouTube:

Now I admit openly that theologically I am far more likely to be close to Warren than Robinson. I also left a barbed comment on a friend’s Facebook page when she rejoiced that Obama had invited Robinson and that the bishop had promised not to be overtly Christian in reaching out to people of other faiths.

But having said that, I felt I owed the man a fair hearing in case I had been wrong in the heat of the moment. So tonight I watched the clip above.

And I’m still disappointed. I don’t want to get into the pro- or anti-gay issues here, there are larger questions about the theology and tone of the prayer. There are things in it with which I can happily agree, especially the importance of remembering the poor in the world rather than being triumphalistic. However, my concern about the tone is that it all sounds rather hectoring. It seems to fall into the category of prayer as ‘preaching with eyes closed’. Am I being unfair? I realise this is a rather subjective judgment. It may be his accent!

The theology is of rather more concern. His opening phrase is the one that sets up the idea of reaching out without being specifically Christian: ‘O God of our many understandings …’ You will not be surprised to know that someone of  moderately conservative theological persuasions has difficulties with this. Is belief in God a matter merely of human understanding? If so, where does the Christian belief in Jesus fit in? Granted, the doctrine of revelation has its problems, especially when some people claim a near-infallible understanding of the whole counsel of God, but I’m just not prepared to trade in the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ, especially focussed in his incarnation, his exemplary life, his atoning death and resurrection, and his reign at the Father’s right hand. Has Robinson merely baptised secular inclusivism with God-words?

I’d be interested in your opinions. I just ask that since Warren and Robinson are both the subject of passionate views for and against, that we keep our tone as civil and loving as possible, without compromising our convictions.


  1. I think it depends on your perspective. As someone raised in a conservative American denomination, I’m afraid that Warren’s prayer sounded to me like a ‘sermon with eyes closed’. In a country where Christians are afraid to say that God loves everyone ‘even’ non-Christians, Robinson’s prayer caught my imagination more than Warren’s.

    But then again, I’ve got more sympathy for Robinson than Warren. So I expect that it does depend on your perspective.


  2. I think it can be quite difficult sometimes to hear as a prayer ideas that we don’t agree with.

    I remember once getting furiously angry when someone made a very long prayer whose premise I think is totally inaccurate and discriminatory. I’d heard the person expressing those ideas before so it was not a surprise. I think the upset on my part was that I certainly didn’t want to be praying that prayer.


  3. Actually, I didn’t find Warren as objectionable as I thought I would. I tried to read one of his books a whil ago, and simply ground to a halt. But watching him pray, I felt more on a wavelength with him. There was a celebration of the majesty and mighty acts of God, there was confession, there was praise – it was OK.

    Robinson, on the other hand, left me a bit disappointed. I wouldn’t say “sermon with eyes closed” but “pastoral advice pretending to be prayer.” He was too, too quickly into the petitionary prayers, very little sense of encounter with God. I don’t buy into the specific theologies of either man, and I think I’d be happy to work with either man, but Warren’s prayer seemed to me to be on the button.


  4. Pam,

    Thanks for your further comment.


    Thanks for yours.

    Both and All,

    One of the things I found difficult to disentangle yesterday was the sense of America as a nation having a special destiny under God. I guess it’s not too many years since the UK felt that, but it’s long enough ago for me to be detached from it. Obama retained quite a balanced attitude, I thought. He implied an understanding of the US having good and bad aspects, both present-day and in history.

    Also, although I am (as I said) closer in theology to Warren, I am distinct from him in my allegiance to a more missional approach. And besides, nobody would make me senior pastor of a megachurch! Like Tony, I began one of his books and didn’t finish it (‘The Purpose-Driven Church’).I guess I’m uncomfortable with notions of the word ‘driven’. That isn’t to question the man’s integrity at all, just to mark a point of difference.


  5. For me Rev Joseph Lowery’s benediction was the prayer that most felt like a prayer and most moved me. The outburst of joy at the end of the prayer was delightful and his weaving of the story of what was taking place with the heartfelt desire that God would bless and protect Obama and his family was beautifully done.

    I found Warren’s prayer rambling and predictable.

    I think the issue of state and religion is fascinating – as a country we maintain an ‘established’ religion (which I believe is anachronistic) but our swearing in of a new Government and Prime Minister has much less overt reference to Christianityin particular and faith in general than what took place on the Capital Building in a country that deliberately and consciously separates state and religion.


  6. Micky,

    Thanks – I’m acutely aware I still haven’t seen Lowery’s benediction. Must seek that out on YouTube.

    Thanks also for including me on your blogroll. Have you registered yours at Methoblog? You’ll appear on Methodist blogrolls around the world if you do.


  7. A reply to David Booth’s comment that has appeared on the next post:


    Thank you for your observations. I don’t see it the same way as you. There never was any question of Obama being tied to ‘right wing evangelicalism’. It’s all the more surprising that he even chose Warren – and hence the complaints from those of his supporters who thought they owned him (rather like right wing fundamentalists who thought they owned Bush when he didn’t follow their policies, e.g., on Israel).

    The question of a Jew and a Muslim offering prayers at an American President’s inauguration raises the whole issue about the relationship between the state and religion in that country, which I don’t feel qualified to answer. I’m aware there are different interpretations of their constitutional position. Maybe one or more of my American friends who comment on the blog might like to offer some observations – Pam has commented already, but not on this question.

    However, I would have to question your interpretation of Wesleyan theology. The love of God for Wesley was supremely expressed in Christ, and I don’t think his statement can so easily be imported into support for a multi-faith approach. I’d find it hard to see Wesley’s theology as anything other than Christocentric. Nor, given his opposition to the deists of his day, do I think he can be invoked to support what you call a ‘generous theology’. That generous theology sounds more like holding together irreconcilable tensions and contradictions to me. You could to some extent appeal to Wesley’s sermon on Catholic Spirit, but even that assumes common allegiance to the same faith, just a differing on secondary issues.


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