"More complex than I had previously imagined": Ashley Cocksworth on prayer


Ashley Cocksworth is Assistant Professor in Theology and Ministry at Durham University, and author of Karl Barth on Prayer (2015), of the imminent Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed, and editor of the forthcoming T&T Clark Companion to Christian Prayer. Stephen Burns interviewed him...

SB: How did you get interested in prayer as a theological subject?

AC: As it happens, I can trace my theological interest in prayer to a single moment. I was settling into the first semester of the final year of my undergraduate degree and found myself enrolled on a modern Christology course. One of the questions on the list of otherwise rather conventional essay titles stood out like a sore thumb: it was on prayer. I couldn’t work out what it was doing there. It felt out of place. Intrigued, I set about answering it. I found the process of writing that essay deeply formational: for probably the first time in my degree, I was being asked to connect one of the central, everyday practices of the Christian faith with rigorous, critical theological argumentation. Suddenly prayer came to look massively more complex than I had previously imagined. I was gripped and perplexed by prayer in equal measure. In a sense, I’m still in the process of thinking through the (admittedly more expanded) question of how prayer and theology fit together.

Thinking back on it, that fourth year essay brought me into contact with all sorts of new and exciting literature: the mystics primarily but also neglected areas in the writings of more mainline thinkers and other academic disciplinary areas altogether – sociology, anthropology, etc. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve come to realise that some of the most significant thinkers in the western theological canon (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth)have some super interesting things to say about prayer – and devote large chunks of their writing to the topic. The most stimulating of those discussions, I’ve found, are those that integrate, often with great imaginative verve, discussions of prayer into their systematic thinking and sometimes to such a rich extent that you can’t always tell when theology ends and prayer begins. 

SB: How have you come to understand the relationship between prayer and theology? Who has helped you—in person, with their writing, whatever?

AC: The relation between prayer and theology is fascinating – spiritually and intellectually. John Webster once said that you could write an entire history of western Christian theology on exactly the story of this relationship; and I think he’s on to something. In terms of personal influences, there are several; and the list is growing by the day. Alongside friends, colleagues, family, the cloud of witnesses, initially, I found Barth’s thinking on prayer and theology highly stimulating – at least enough to see me through my doctoral work on the topic. More recently I’ve been interested in tracing the relation between theology and prayer as it is worked out and finds expression in Anglican systematic theology. There is something instinctively Anglican about doing theology in the context of prayer that remains visibly at work in several contemporary systematic theologians – Sarah Coakley, Graham Ward, Katherine Sonderegger: all Anglican, all engaged in the high-octane work of cutting edge multi-volume systematic projects, all (though in very different ways) seeking to integrate prayer into their systematic vision. Together, they present a compelling critique of the construction of thinking and praying as antithetical to each other. Theology ends up, in fact,being more not less intellectually demanding when done in prayer: it braces the mind, soul, and heart and becomes not so much a thing to think about but a life to live. In a sense, systematic theology can be more systematic when routed through prayer while at the same time look a whole lot different too – less systematic, more untidy in an odd sort of way. 

SB: When you turn up to worship, how does being a theologian of prayer complicate, enable, help, hinder, clarify, or muddle, your participation? How does your study affect you as a praying person? 

AC: On one level, prayer is very simple. It’s the thing that makes us ‘us’. But on another level, and viewed theologically, prayer ends up becoming hugely complicated. There’s a reason why the thinkers I mentioned earlier devoted so many words to thinking through the apparent simplicity of prayer: when broken open, prayer becomes endlessly interesting and complex. There’s no such thing as ‘mere’ prayer. Prayer is drenched in meaning, and demands the most rigorous intellectual energy to work out what might be going on, theologically, as we pray. 

Another thing I’ve come to realise about prayer is that prayer is more than a thing I do (or should do). It is more complexly a work of God ‘in’ me. When searching for a definition of prayer, the early church didn’t select an individual practice of prayer (petition, intercession, praise) to sum up the life of prayer but reached for a metaphor. That metaphor was ‘conversation’. They meant, of course, conversation with God: dialoguing with the divine as if you would converse with a loved one – in silence and in speech. But conversation had a deeper, more radical meaning still. It meant more literally the ‘con-versing’, the coming together of the divine and the human in a relation of love and communion. It meant, in a word, ‘union’. In this sense, prayer is more than the thing I do – it’s God’s practice in me – but it also becomes more perplexingly the thing through which I do all things. Prayer is an ethic, a way of life, as Barth knew well.

SB: What kind of liturgy best invites your own prayer? How have you come to think about this? 

AC: For many years, both growing up in a university chapel and then as a student myself, my spiritual bread and butter has been choral Evensong. Theologically, there’s loads going on in the liturgy of Evensong. As part of the church’s daily office, the daily habit of prayer is the way the church breathes: it’s the breathing necessary for life. The more one prays, the more it becomes a habit and by that I mean the more one comes to ‘inhabit’ prayer and the life it involves; and the same is true for the church too. 

Part of my attraction to Evensong is the way it fires on all cylinders: it’s affectively orientated, aesthetically driven, beautiful, it integrates individual practices of prayer – confession, intercession, petition, praise – as well as the reading of Scripture, songs of liberation, the chanting of psalms. The organisation of the liturgy subtly but intentionally takes you through a process of transformation. It’s also something to be received. There’s lots of ‘not-doing’ at Evensong where you are prayed for more than do the praying yourself. One of the other intriguing things about the Evensong liturgy (at least in its original form) is the double saying of the Lord’s Prayer: it is said twice. The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most said prayer in the history of Christianity. It is utterly central. It has inspired theological interpretation and endless improvisation throughout its history – there are extraordinary re-readings of its petitions in new ways for new contexts. I’m with Teresa of Ávila who in her own heady and extended interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer described it as the summing up of all prayer. The best liturgy, in one way or another, is improvisation on the petitions and theology of the Lord’s Prayer. But having said that, as I gestured above, prayer is always more than leitourgia. It is more than the work of the people. It is to be caught up in something far greater: the mysterious presence of God.

 Thank you, Ashley.

Photographs supplied by Ashley Cocksworth. The banner image is also the cover of Ashley's new Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed, which features Gillian Lever's "Embrace": see htps://www.facebook.com/lever.arts