What counts as prayer? It is a serious mistake, when faced with very difficult questions, to answer them too quickly. It is not much easier to say what counts as prayer than it is to say what counts as Christianity, for example. In trying to fend off the difficulty of the question as to what counts as prayer, social science has often excluded from consideration all sorts of putatively “secular” activities—contacting the dead through family history, lighting a candle for a loved one on a church visit undertaken with the intention of viewing a fine rood screen, keeping a partner “safe” by thinking forward to the telephone call which will be shared with him or her that evening—which are at the margin of, and perhaps finally indissociable from, prayer.
Our work will suggest that prayer may, in all sorts of ways, direct and indirect, be much closer to the heart of contemporary experience than is usually admitted—even in the supposedly “secularized” European context. We will offer the first fully ethnographic account of Anglican prayer, especially as centered on cathedrals, their clergy, faithful laity, and “visitors” with widely varying degrees of religious commitment. Anglicanism has been chosen for several reasons. It includes the widest range of Christian thought and experience, from radical evangelical scripturalism to strongly Catholic liturgical devotion. It has recently experienced a surge in cathedral worship, against a background picture of declining church attendance. Many who visit cathedrals in order to enjoy their architectural beauty or world-class choirs find themselves drawn into activities which cannot really be distinguished from “religion” proper. Anglican cathedrals therefore offer, above all, an especially fertile setting in which to ask the question: what counts as prayer? We want to explore the meaning of this question for a very wide range of people who come into contact with cathedrals in all sorts of ways. In particular, we are interested in a very wide range of “prayer-like” activities which are situated at the porous boundaries of prayer. Apparently “secular” activities such as hobbyist genealogy, or “being mindful” of loved ones on military service, may turn out to be much more intimately entangled with religion than their practitioners themselves may be aware. Other UK social scientists have noticed the rise in cathedral worship. Their valuable work has usually relied on questionnaire-based approaches, with the advantage of yielding substantial quantifiable data. It can also have the disadvantage of building pre-existing presumptions about the nature of prayer and religious experience into the questionnaire design. Our distinctive methodology is that of ethnographic participant observation, a method uniquely adapted to yield qualitative information about the experience of prayer and prayer-like activities themselves. 1)The intellectual merit of this enquiry should be clear. It will recover prayer as an object of study in itself, in a context in which that object has too often been subordinated to theoretical debates in which investments are blindingly intense (on “real” religion or “secularization” and modernity ). This recovery of prayer as an ethnographic field will, we suggest, offer new insights into the nature and scope of religious experience today as advanced social science attempts to define it. 2) We anticipate that the project will be particularly well suited to community engagement with each of our key research groups; clergy, family historians, and military families. The research process will allow opportunities for regular feedback with these groups, and for the furthering of informants’ individual and group projects; for example, individuals may wish to use copies of their own interviews for their personal family history records or (for clergy) their reflections on ministry and on prayer. We will be guided by our informants, but anticipate facilitating a joint event on ‘ways to remember’ linked to the 2014 World War One Centennial commemorations. Since questions about what counts as religion, as family, as prayer, and as memory are emically central to our various informants, our intellectual enquiry will, we hope, be of interest also to those with whom we hope to work.