Church of England

Despair at the Church of England’s General Election prayer

Who writes these things? Honestly, since when was it a sin to despair? Don’t the brokenhearted, poor and homeless despair? What about the starving and dying? Or the persecuted or suffering? What about those in a state of unbearable grief or mourning? Didn’t the ‘perfect and upright‘ Job despair?

Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.
Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.
Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it (Job 3:3ff).

Wishing you’d never been born and cursing the day you were sounds a bit like despair, doesn’t it? And what about Jesus?

Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.. (Mt 26:38).
And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Lk 22:44).
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46).

Sweating blood sounds a bit like despair, doesn’t it? Hanging on a cross and feeling abandoned by God is a defensible despair, isn’t it? Despairing about prayers which make us feel guilty about our despair is a just cause of despair, isn’t it?

Apparently there’s a deeper theological meaning: “The sin of despair refers to the abandonment of all hope of salvation”, notes Pétrus. “It doesn’t refer to anxiety about an election result.” That’s okay then. So why does the Church of England use the word in the context of the General Election? Despair has long been unforgivable, as the New York Times notes:

What mysterious cruelty in the human soul, to have invented despair as a sin! Like the seven deadly sins, despair is a mythical state. It has no quantifiable existence; it is merely part of an allegorical world view, yet no less lethal for that. Unlike other sins, however, despair is by tradition the sole sin that cannot be forgiven; it is the conviction that one is damned absolutely, thus a repudiation of the Christian Saviour and a challenge to God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. The sins for which one may be forgiven — pride, anger, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, envy — are all firmly attached to the objects of this world, but despair seems to bleed out beyond the confines of the immediate ego-centered self and to relate to no desire, to no thing. The alleged sinner has detached himself even from the possibility of sin, and this the Catholic Church, as the self-appointed voice of God on earth, cannot allow.

This despair is a profound depression which empties the soul of hope and hardens the heart to God. This may lead to suicide, and that apparently leads to eternal damnation, and so is unforgivable.

“Not sure that can stand up to modern psychological understandings of depression, to be honest,” tweets the ever-thoughtful and compassionate Rev’d Marcus Walker.

Quite.

No feeling of democratic despair induced by Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn or Tim Farron could possibly be unforgivable. Is the whole Labour family supposed to feel guilt over their despair at the current poll ratings? Surely God understands the utter misery and despair induced by Liberal Democrats, doesn’t He? Or at least by the SNP? What kind of compassionate and loving God would damn someone to hell in perpetuity for despairing at the tedious antics and divisive hypocrisy of Nicola Sturgeon?

The Church of England is using the word ‘despair’ in a way which absolutely nobody (or virtually nobody) today understands. Sin against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28f), which is indeed blasphemous and unforgivable, is nothing to do with the dashed hopes and despondency of democracy. So the church has provided for the nation a prayer which is foolishness to the Greeks (1Cor 1:23). Or at least one word of it is. The despairing soul is not a sinning soul in the vernacular: it is a righteous soul, longing, anguishing, pleading for justice, deliverance, hope and peace.

But please, dear reader, forgive this terse, snappy post, for it is borne of more than a little cynicism, which may indeed be a sin. They’re right about that.

Surely God will forgive the sinner if His church publishes prayers which cause people to stumble?