Lent Course 2009: Prayers for Lovers

Public Prayer: The Corporate and The Catachetic

When two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them

Matthew 18:20

The Church of England is often described as a "Prayer Book Church" because over the centuries since its foundation it has centred its spiritual focus on the Book of Common prayer rather than on a credal confession; it has seen its central activity as relating to God in public prayer rather than arguing over zealously about doctrine.

1. Purposes

The chief purposes of public prayer are to:

The first two points are reasonably obvious but we should not overlook - or be suspicious of - the third. There is a scale to public activity which makes it theatrical, a secular word for sacramental. we use human skill to generate an atmosphere which elevates what we are saying and singing which, in turn, opens us to the prospect of wonder.

Public prayer need neither be simply spoken nor dull. Our prayer tradition originates in the Psalms which are full of emotion and which were written to be accompanied by music or chanted musically. They still form the backbone of daily prayer for our clergy and for many lay people. Western Christianity also has a noble tradition of church music.

2. Characteristics

Just as private prayer is illumined and obscured by our individual, private experience, so public prayer expresses a collective, religious/cultural consciousness. Thus, public prayer is characterised by contemporary understandings of:

(Note that the word "contemporary" does not mean that the prayers we say have to be contemporary; we may change our Collects over time to reflect a different understanding of the Creed and we may change our Prayers of the Faithful to reflect a changing world but the Creed we say is very ancient but still contemporary in that we understand it to be the best formulation we have at present (always remembering that words change their meaning both through time and according to place).

Public prayer, because it is collective, is more concerned with doctrine than it is with theology. Let me explain. As discussed in Unit One, theology is the substance of our individual relationship with God that takes place at our personal breaking point; it relies on our willingness to take risks to get one 'step' closer to God. Doctrine, on the other hand - whether we are thinking about our understanding of a piece of Scripture or of an organic understanding of a concept - is a statement of the language we are collectively prepared to accept to describe the God with whom we individually relate: theology is to doctrine what philosophy is to legislation. It therefore follows that a great deal of public prayer is, on the surface at least, much less personal and much more concerned with Christian solidarity.

There is no conflict between theology and doctrine, it is simply that one is a necessary precondition for the other. It is only because we wrestle at the cutting edge of possibility that we are able to formulate fresh insights into the nature of the God of Love. Just to give one example from the last century: it was people like Bonhoeffer who developed the idea that God was not ‘impassive', not ‘indifferent' to human suffering but could be understood to be standing among the suffering.

3. Practical Steps

Public prayer follows set formulae and this creates advantages and disadvantages: the advantage of routine is that it establishes a solid foundation on which we can build a variety of perceptions whereas the disadvantage is that we become so accustomed to what we are saying that we 'switch off'. The Church has tried to overcome this problem by combining a familiar framework with different content so that the principal act of worship, for example the Eucharist, has a variety of prayers both depending on the season (propers) and on the preference of the President (Preface, Eucharistic Prayer): too much change erodes the base and too little change invites indifference.

For us the main problem lies in the indifference, so here are some practical steps which we can take:

  1. Those Responsible for Worship:
    1. Prepare carefully by choosing appropriate content which balances:
      1. The regular and the seasonal;
      2. Delivery (Presidential prayer, reading, choral) and response (congregational);
      3. Words and silence.
    2. Consider the nature of the congregation;
    3. Match elements of worship to available resources;
    4. Act as good hosts by making comfort, audibility and visibility as good as they can be.
  2. Individuals:
    • Prepare for worship with a period of silent reflection and study; consider what is going to be said and whether we have grasped the order and the outlines of the content; just as we would not attend an opera without reading the synopsis, so we should not attend an act of worship without this kind of preparation;
    • Say the prayer aloud taking proper note of the punctuation;
    • Identify key words and antitheses;
    • Consider whether we have understood the meaning of what we have said;
    • Resolve how what we have said will change our Christian lives.

To take those four steps with examples:

Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your son Jesus Christ. Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.

We can see that there is hardly a wasted word and that there are numerous intricate balances. Although the tendency in public worship is for all of us to establish the same rhythm and tone, it does no harm to bring out some of the words more emphatically to sustain concentration, such as "we" and "you" or to concentrate on one word such as "living". Even if we are observing the general rhythm with other worshippers, we can make the words live more dramatically in our mind;

4. Points for Consideration

There are three points which we might consider as the result of this discussion:

5. Contemporary Issues

Because it is the subject of such controversy, we should consider briefly the matter of contemporary worship in general and its 'relevance' to young people in particular:

In considering these questions we might want to remind ourselves that one of the purposes of public worship is to establish solidarity.

6. Questions & Exercises

  1. Choose a Psalm and identify its different emotional elements and its different forms of address to God;
  2. Take a familiar prayer and analyse its delivery, meaning and application;
  3. Consider the points in Sections 3, 4 or 5;
  4. Take the Readings for the coming Sunday and write a Collect to fit with them;
  5. Compare the Leonard Cohen, Geoff Buckley and Alexandra Burke versions (choice of words and arrangement) of Cohen's song  Hallelujah!