Saturday, 14 January 2017

Samuel McComb

I have picked up a nicely bound edition of A Book of Prayers for Public and Private Use (1912) inscribed by its author, Samuel McComb.  McComb (1864–1938) was raised in Belfast and educated at Oxford. He was professor of church history at Queens University in Ontario and served as minister of Presbyterian churches in England and New York City.  He became a spokesman for the Emmanuel Movement in the US, which pioneered a psychologically-based approach to the religious healing of alcoholism and drug addiction. McComb subsequently left the US for an ecclesiastical post in Nice. A popular speaker and an excellent writer, he influenced the liberal theology and social activism of such prominent American Christians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

 McComb's book consists of thirty general prayers, a second part of intercessory and personal prayers and a third of prayers for personal use.  The second part includes prayers for persons afflicted with neurasthenia, which is an old term for emotional ill-health, and for persons striving to overcome the alcohol habit, reflecting McComb's interest in addiction.  Some of the prayers are out of date in terms of language and of gender roles, for example, there is one for a mother, but not a father, grieving for a wayward child, but other prayers are worded to be used for either sex, with gender-specific words marked in italics so that the alternative can be used.  There is also a little, perhaps unintentional, humour in the 'Prayer for a Person Who Cannot Pray', which is for those who need to 'unburden their spirit'.  Although this prayer, like the others, is couched in traditional Christian language, it works for the non-theist if phrases and sentences in the active voice, with 'God' or other such words as the subject, are re-written in the passive voice.

The Prayers of 1912 are as elegant as their binding.  They are designed to supplement not replace the collects of the Book of Common Prayer and are in the same exalted language but the thoughts they reflect are generous and humane without the self-flagellating emphasis on sin which spoils the BCP.  In the preface, and reflecting his progressive Christianity, McComb says that each generation must win the truth for itself and that the truth so won must touch deeply the springs of its religious life and in this way influence its devotional feelings.  What McComb is saying in Quaker terms is that a prayer book must speak to our condition.  Accordingly, while the BCP requires us to make a regular, dreary and oppressive confession of our sins, McComb presents us with scope for positive and life-enhancing religious practice, elegantly expressing the potential for personal growth in the religious and devotional life.  For example, in Prayer IV we are invited to pray on how instead of enjoying life 'we have sunk back into the complainings of our narrow and blinded souls'. Elsewhere, in Prayer V, he says that when we think of God we are troubled in our consciences yet continue to be drawn to God and to seek to live a spiritual life.  He quotes St Augustine's 'Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts our restless till they find rest [I prefer 'abide'] in Thee'.

Rowan Williams says of St Augustine that 'more clearly than any other early Christian writer, he presents a vision of the entirety of human experience caught up into grace and into God, of providence at work in sin, doubt, confusion, complex and imperfect motivation' (Wound of Knowledge location 1538/3074).  McComb also understands the importance of generosity of spirit and compassion when so often we are afflicted with 'the coldness of our affections', with the unhappiness of spiritual aridity and have cause to lament 'the prayerlessness of our lives'. He has some excellent insights into the nature of religious experience.  For example, in Prayer VIII he says 'Touch us, O our Father, with a feeling of Thy great realities, for though our thought about Thee is better than our words, our experience of Thee is better than our thought'.  This resonates with Quakers, for whom experience is of the essence.

 His book of prayers offers exalted language combined with a understanding of the human condition using elements of modern positive psychology as well as of traditional Christian spirituality.  I am surprised McComb is a forgotten figure and that there seems to be little attempt to follow his example of a richly wrought but insightful and deep language of prayer.

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