Thursday, 2 October 2008
Enough With The Written Prayers Already
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