Thursday, 2 October 2008

Enough With The Written Prayers Already

Power prayer (332/365)
Originally uploaded by labspics
I rarely seethe my way through meetings with colleagues and friends, but every now and then ….

Take last month for example. I spent a big chunk of two weeks in meetings with other Baptist ministers. First of all it was our turn at Luther-King House to host the biennial conference for Baptists doing theological research. The week after it was the annual meeting of staff from the British Baptist colleges.

While I recognise that not everyone would queue to attend such events, both gatherings had much about them that I enjoy: meeting old friends, getting my brain stretched and talking more than is good for me. But this time round I spent too much time chuntering under my breath. You see the whole thing was somewhat spoiled by prayer.

It goes with out saying that meetings devoted to theological reflection or to discussing ministerial formation should be punctuated regularly by prayer. Amen to that. What I found so frustrating was the extent to which those times of prayer were dominated by written prayers, responsive readings and the like.

Don’t get me wrong, ever since I discovered the value of a daily office when I was a student here in Manchester back in the eighties I’ve appreciated and enjoyed using written liturgies along with the best of them. Carefully crafted prayers with nicely turned phrases and a thoughtful structure definitely have their place. It’s just that too much of the written stuff leaves no room for good old-fashioned extemporary prayer.

Similarly there are times when having a candle to focus on, an aria to listen to or pebble to hold really does it for me. But last month I found myself longing for someone, at least once, to open up the time set aside for prayer by simply saying, “Ok let’s talk to God – off you go, let the free-for-all begin.” I began to wonder if it is still possible to pray without first handing stuff out.

I reckon there’s a lot to be said for making it up on the spot with everyone chipping in when they fancy. I like the notion of prayer as a jam session rather than a carefully rehearsed recital. What’s wrong with the liturgical equivalent of skiffle or punk; no need to be highly skilled or self-consciously careful – just have a go, let rip. Ill-formed but heartfelt prayers do the job just fine.

I realise, of course, that sometimes open prayer can be an awkward, forced, thin and routine. But it needn’t be. It can also be relaxed, spontaneous, honest, natural, stimulating.

In the rush to enrich our prayer times with a range of approaches from a variety of traditions, we should be careful lest we lose the knack of prayer as the equivalent of banter around the kitchen table. I would hate to be left with nothing other than prayer as the polite conversation of the parlour.

I also realise that the meetings to which I refer are hardly typical of most Baptist gatherings. But if the way in which we prayed time and again at those events has become the default mode for those of us studying and teaching theology and if we’ve lost the art of shared, extempore prayer or, God forbid, if we are tempted to regard it as somehow less worthy, then there’s a serious problem. Not only are we missing what can be prayer at its best but we are also badly disconnected from the way that many in our churches are inclined to conduct their prayer meetings.

Having got that off my chest I thought I’d feel lot better. I don’t. Instead I’m worried that the next time I see my colleagues they might beat me to death with copies of Gathering for Worship or Celtic Daily Prayer. Perhaps, dear reader, you would pray for me, free-form, you know, the good, old-fashioned, Baptist way.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here


Catriona said...

You mean there are people who don't use 'Gathering' as a door stop - oh. It has some superb stuff in it but is way to big to carry around, and like anything too much is not good for the health.

I guess there has to be a middle ground somewhere so that we don't restrict/constrict ourselves to "pre-printed formes," as the 17th century Baps would have put it, but neither do we 'really just, Lord, just want to, hmm, yes, Lord, mumble inane banalities, ay-men (because USA mispronunciations of Greek are clearly what Jesus did and much more holy)'

At our recent ministers' conference someone told us all to "pray out loud, all at once, 'go'" which caused me as much irritation as an overdose of Iona. Another devotional session involved some silences which were great but too short at ~5 seconds each.

Leading worship is a thankless task - remind me, why do we do it?!

tim f said...

"Carefully crafted prayers with nicely turned phrases and a thoughtful structure definitely have their place."

I don't disagree with this per se but I am concerned that when they are the norm they might put people off from praying out loud during open prayer, because people might feel their prayers had to "match up" to the written ones.

Re: what Catriona says about "really just" prayers, I think we are also often too unassertive in open prayer & worried that other people or even God might disagree, eg:

"Lord, do you think that maybe, if it's okay with you and it's really not too much trouble, you could perhaps think about trying to make sure people who are starving maybe have just a little bit more to eat. I know you're busy and it's not as easy as we might think but we'd all really appreciate it and of course if it's not Your will then just forget I even spoke. Amen."

I don't think that's how the Psalmists would have done it. Although it'd probably have been more poetic, I reckon the tone would've been more like:

"Lord, there are people who still haven't got enough to eat and it's really not on. We know you can't stand that either so can you just get on with doing something about it. And while you're at it, smite the IMF. kthx."

andy amoss said...

Not sure i want to ask this (since i fear i may know what the 'F' is), but what is "IMF"?

andy amoss said...

No, got it. For a minute there i was coming up less flattering, though perhaps more appropriate, names for the International Monetary Fund.

tim f said...

Ah. I tend not to swear in open prayer-time.

Stephen Lingwood said...

I've recently started (publicly) praying extemporaneously after a colleague from Transylvania said about Unitarians in this country "why do you READ prayers? Why don't you just PRAY" (he said the same thing about preaching).

But now I'm leading worship every week in the same community, I wonder if I'm getting too repetitive. I feel there might be need for more structure, or more diverse participation in prayer. But I wonder how to do that in a place with no culture of free-for all prayer.

Glen Marshall said...

Mix it up, be creative, use vernacular, read a lot, stock the larder rather than just worrying about what's going to go on the plate, go for the middle ground sometimes and think ahead of time what you might pray about, use notes even but don't always script every phrase.

However, what irked me was that this wasn't really public worship, it was a bunch of colleagues working together on stuff and we seemed incapable of just shifting focus and telling God what was worrying us, exciting us, etc.

I wonder sometimes whether its a class thing to certain degree. As most of us (religious professionals) are middle class we tend to be overly concerned about doing things properly and even self-consciously trying to make a good impression.

Catriona said...

Ah, you see, (as they say around here) if you came to my deacons meeting you'd hear me praying things like 'thank you God that you can make sense of this nonsense' at the end of some incoherent attempt at praying I've just completed. Small, less intellectual churches have their advantages!

Stephen Lingwood said...

You're on to something with the class thing.

Phil B said...

I've got some things to say on this from a Puritan perspective but I'll wait til I've got more time.

Phil B said...

"If the leaders of one party had spent as much time in learning to pray as they have done in reading liturgies and vindicating their imposition; and if the vehement writers of the other side, together with the just cautions against quenching the Spirit, had more cultivated this divine skill themselves, and taught Christians regularly how to pray; I believe the practice of free prayer would be more universally approved, and the fire of this controversy would never have raged to the destruction of so much charity." Isaac Watts, A Guide to Prayer, 1715.

I'm firmly in the Dissenting tradition of Dr Watts. There's nothing worse than "praying" set prayers where halfway through there's the great rustle of people turning the page.
All my prayers are extempore in worship, even the communion prayers. And Glen played a big part in me starting that practice.

However, I'm a bit concerned by stuff like: "we should be careful lest we lose the knack of prayer as the equivalent of banter around the kitchen table."

Prayer isn't the equivalent of banter - it's coming into the presence of a holy God. Yes, the Holy Spirit takes our inadequate words. Yes, Jesus intercedes on our behalf but prayer should recognise that God is a sovereign King and be done "decently and in order."

So, a big yes to free prayer. A big yes to academics learning from their churches how to pray and passing that on to their students (praying before and after a lecture would help). But a big no to treating God like a gossipy neighbour and losing that sense of gravitas.

tim f said...

"But a big no to treating God like a gossipy neighbour and losing that sense of gravitas."

If I know someone well I tend to be more informal when I chat with them. It doesn't mean I respect them less - in fact it probably means I respect them more. Ditto with banter. I am more likely to use irony and jokingly insult someone I respect and get on well with. That comes out of a place of deeper reverence than the courteous tone I might adopt with strangers (unless I had such a deep level of disrespect for them that normal courtesy flew out of the window, eg if I ever met Melanie Philips).

I'm not sure what praying "decently and in order" means, but I think honesty is the most important thing in prayer. Certainly an excessively and contrived "gossipy" tone would be, well, excessive and contrived, but most of the time I think open prayer probably goes too far the other way - of having its own formalised idioms, which in my view lacks openness and falls short of truth even if characterising it as dishonest might be unfair.

Glen Marshall said...

My two penn'orth on the conversation tween Tim and Phil.

Formality or informality in prayer? I reckon it's important to remember that God is BOTH transcendent AND immanent, BOTH holy, majestic, awesome, ineffable AND intimate, familiar,friendly, welcoming. Compare for example the knee-trembling tenderness of Hoseah's "The Holy One among you" in Hos 11.

This surely means that either formal address or relaxed conversation are appropriate tones for prayer. I whole-heartedly agree with both of you!

One thing that will shape which is most fitting is the occasion. Generally speaking the set piece, public act of worship requires a degree of formality. This is as much to do with setting and group dynamics as it is to do with the nature of God.

On the other hand, while the reverential, deferential is not out of place when a few friends/colleagues get together to pray, or being together find themselves talking to God, an off the cuff and chatty disposition seems more fitting.

My beef with prayer at the gatherings that I described was, in part, that it was inappropriate for prayer in such a context to be so dominated by the premeditated, formally scripted approach.

It is also worth pointing out that there is a difference between strictly extempore prayer and what Phil, quite rightly, describes as free prayer.

Free prayer, as I understand it, is likely to involve a degree of forethought, picking a range of issues for intercession or petition for example, or deciding in advance that a prayer will build on themes in an opening song.

Because one of the tasks of those leading prayer in the context of public worship is to pray on behalf of the congregation or, if you prefer, to sum up the prayers of the people, it seems to me that, typically, much prayer on such occasions is likely to be free rather than strictly extempore. Needless to say this is dependent on the default mood, style, feel of the act of worship in question.

Not sure if Phil was deliberately making this distinction or not but it is at least worth being aware of as it introduces a degree of subtlety into the discussion that can be overlooked.

On another issue, not sure if I'm reading the two of you right but I wouldn't want you to get the impression that I want to abandon written prayers all together. They have their place and their own particular strengths.

I doubt many if any of the psalms for instance were either extempore of free - if they were then give the author of psalm 119 the Spontaneous Acrostic of the Year Award, rappers of the world stand back in amazement.

Does the use of a carefully crafted phrase in written prayer put people off praying? Perhaps, but it needn't as long as there is variety in the form and tone of shared prayer. The skillful, extempore prayer is just as likely to be intimidating and discouraging - if not more so. Any way, isn't it part of the role of ministry to encourage and enable others to minister even when initially to do so requires courage?

I also wonder just how puritanical Phil wants us to be. At the risk of sounding patronising, I reckon that the Puritans have much to teach us about thoughtful, well-informed experimental religion.

I also think that in the midst of the current rush to embrace the pictoral, the symbolic and the otherwise multi-sensory approach prayer and worship it's a good idea to listen to those who place an emphasis on the rational, the aural and the oral.

It's generally a sound dissenting instinct to cock an ear towards the minority voice and to check the current where it runs against the tide.

However, there's no way I would want to encourage the kind of reactionary either or mentality that has bedeviled western Xnty in so many ways for far too long.

There is surely a crucial place for the imagistic, symbolic and multi-sensory when it comes to worship and prayer. It has to be better to engage with and celebrate God using all the equipment that God has given us.

I'm going to stop. This has already turned into two bob's worth rather than two penn'orth.

Phil B said...

"I also wonder just how puritanical Phil wants us to be. At the risk of sounding patronising, I reckon that the Puritans have much to teach us about thoughtful, well-informed experimental religion."

I don't get the first bit of this. Are you having a go?

I want us to be more like the Puritans in all things. Because they were geniuses in thoughtful, well-informed experimental religion. Read "The Godly Man's Picture" by Thomas Watson for an accessible example.

Context is everything as you rightly say but I don't want us to lose the sense of awe that comes from the privilege of coming to the Sovereign of the universe in prayer. That's something the Reformers and the Puritans have taught me - and in that I see the awesome beauty of the cross and the free grace through Christ.

Right, where's my black cloak? I've got dancers to berate.

Phil B said...

Oh, and get rid of all written prayers and sing the Psalms like they're supposed to be -

unaccompanied and from the Scottish metrical Psalter!

Glen Marshall said...

Nope, not having a go at all. It's just that I reckon the puritans went too far in their iconoclasm and that there emphasis on word (as I understand) it to the virtual exclusion of image was a bit lopsided.

Celebrating Christmas this year?

Phil B said...

I'm trying not to.

What more "image" do you need other than that given by Jesus - the Lord's Supper and baptism?

But this is moving away from prayer so I'll save that for another time...