For the fifth year in a row, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is inviting the world’s Christians to pray, from Ascension to Pentecost, that others may come to know Jesus. This time, however, Welby’s call for global prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, includes suggestions for prayer at home and online gatherings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We intend to do as much as we can digitally, so that for any countries…where lockdowns are in place, everyone can still join in TKC,” says Robert Key, former dean of Jersey and now Anglican Communion lead for the prayer initiative, which was launched February 25 this year. “Nothing can stop us all being in prayer.”
Lambeth Palace had originally prepared a wide range of prayer resources to guide those wanting to take part—some of which involved prayer that people could do at home, and others which involved gathering with others. Ideas suggested on the Thy Kingdom Come website included prayer meetings; weeks of 24-7 prayer, in which each participant prays for an hour at a time; prayer walks; prayer stations in churches; and “beacon events” in which local churches are invited to take part in prayer together.
After the spread of COVID-19 in recent months, and the establishment in many countries around the world of social distancing measures to curb it, the website was updated with the addition of a section suggesting practices for families at home. These include keeping a regular routine of prayer; reading or watching bedtime Bible stories; and writing letters or sending photos to loved ones, letting them know one is thinking of and praying for them. The site also includes 10 suggestions for congregations unable to gather in person.
As this article was being prepared, the website still included prayer suggestions involving gatherings of people. Key says it’s too early to know whether Lambeth Palace will continue to recommend these activities for Thy Kingdom Come 2020.
“The likelihood is that it will be different in different parts of the world, depending how the virus is working its way through,” he says.
One Thy Kingdom Come practice which will be especially important during the pandemic, Key says, is individual prayer, each of the 11 days, for five people in one’s life. He says he hopes to enlist the help of Canadian bishops in helping people here with this.
Citing a recent opinion piece co-written by Welby and Archbishop of York John Sentamu, Key says now is the time “to put the [parable of the] Good Samaritan into practice in loving our neighbour by caring for the most vulnerable.”
Among the resources for Thy Kingdom Come released for the first time this year is a digital version of the Family Prayer Adventure Map, which combines puzzles and other activities for children with prayer ideas. The new digital version, according to Lambeth Palace, can be downloaded onto any smartphone and “uses gaming and augmented reality technology to bring the 11-day themes to life.”
Many of Lambeth Palace’s prayer suggestions are being adapted by people around the world to suit their own churches and cultures, Key says—and Lambeth Palace is welcoming an outpouring of Anglican evangelism of every stripe.
“The Anglican Communion is a wonderful rainbow, and there will be people who are, if you like, more Catholic than the Pope, and there will be people who are more charismatic than most Pentecostals, and there are people who are more classically evangelical than many good Presbyterians,” he says.
“That’s fine. The big thing for me is, this is about proclaiming Jesus … praying that people will come to know the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.”
Since it began in 2016 as an invitation from the archbishops of Canterbury and York to the Church of England, Thy Kingdom Come has spread around the world—and to many other denominations, Key says. Last year, he says, people in 172 countries took part. In addition to Roman Catholics, there are now also—among others—Methodists, Pentecostals, non-denominational churches and Eastern Orthodox involved in the initiative.
In the lead-up to Thy Kingdom Come last year, during a meeting with Welby, Pope Francis recorded a brief impromptu video message about it, on Welby’s cell phone—an episode the archbishop excitedly related in an intro to the video, released shortly thereafter.
Key says he believes one reason for Thy Kingdom Come’s appeal is its deep rootedness in the New Testament—the communal praying of men and women described in Acts 1:14, for example, followed by the conversion of thousands of people after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
“I think we’re going back much further than Justin’s initiative four years ago,” he says. “I think we’re going back 2,000 years to the practice of the early church.
“We find it so easy to be taken up with our own internal issues,” he says. “Our synod agendas are full of stuff that would bore the outsider witless. And Thy Kingdom Come isn’t about that—it’s about Jesus, and living and sharing his good news.”
Though Anglicans in the West may often be uncomfortable with evangelism, Key says, it’s actually deeply woven into the Anglican tradition. He recalls being vicar at an Oxford church near where a little red brick cross commemorates the zeal of the “Oxford Martyrs”—three Church of England bishops (Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer) who were burned at the stake for heresy in 1555, during the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary.
“I’m an Anglican because I still believe the same faith for which they gave their lives,” he says. “So evangelism, it seems to me, is a deeply Anglican thing…. In the West, we are sometimes nervous about it, and yet, you know, statistically, we are the part of the Anglican communion that needs to rediscover it most—at least we are if we want still to be here in 50 years.”
Should Anglicans be careful, though, not to see Thy Kingdom Come simply as a membership drive to support a church in decline?
Key says that when he’s asked this question, St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians comes to mind. In its first chapter, Paul writes of people preaching the gospel for all sorts of reasons—envy, rivalry and selfish ambition as well as love and goodwill.
“But what does it matter?” Paul asks. “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
It’s similar with Thy Kingdom Come, Key says.
“Is it a membership drive to keep the roof on? Do you know, I hope it’s more than that,” he says. “But actually, what is going out to all the world and making disciples [Matthew 28:19-20] if at one level it isn’t an agenda for a membership drive?”
The main challenge for Anglicans is to be authentic witnesses for Christ, so that anyone who comes to an Anglican church looking for him will “find a Jesus they can understand, and to whom they can respond,” Key says.
“I believe passionately that, in every culture, God as the Bible says, does not leave himself without witness,” [Acts 14:17] he says. “The question is, are we going to have a part to play in that?”