Praying in Public Worship

Article excerpt

LEADING PRAYER in public worship arises out of a disposition to pray. Prayer is essentially an attitude to life: a conviction and a recognition that this universe and all within it -- all we have and all we are -- were created and are sustained in being by a Providence whose original plan and ultimate purpose involves a process of transfiguration in which all things are healed, forgiven and redeemed.

In this process humankind is both to be transfigured and called to be an agent of transfiguration. When we say we believe in God we are affirming a life-long disposition of trust in that Providence. When we say to our loved one, "I love you" -- we don't mean just at this particular moment of heightened awareness but at every moment of our life, when we're not thinking of the other at all, and even at moments of anger and dislike of the other.

Similarly, when we pray alone or in the common liturgy or in a prayer group, we are gathering into a particular moment of reflection a general disposition of trust and confidence in a good God who loves us beyond our imagining. When we say "Let us pray" it is as when two people say "I love you."

A person who leads prayer in worship belongs to that community of trust and confidence -- the community of faith -- even though such a person -- deacon, lay person or priest -- may not be the most prayerful person in the assembly. The leader of public prayer -- common prayer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer called it -- will inevitably draw on his or her experience and resources of prayerfulness, but common prayer is a different exercise from private devotion.

Common prayer can be made so intensely personal that it speaks more of the personality and needs of the person praying than of God or of the common need. Such personalizing in prayer can be appropriate and moving (especially in one-to-one situations), but it can also be disabling and unhelpful. Which is not to say that prayers should be bland, inoffensive, colourless and lacking in feeling or emotion.

Perhaps one way to get the balance right is to remember that prayer -- private or public -- begins with a waiting on God. As the Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8 reminds us, it is the Spirit of God who makes our inarticulate groanings into prayer. Our skill at crafting prayers needs to begin where we have no skill or craft or resource at all, as we wait (as many tongue-tied lovers wait) for the Spirit of love to move and say it all in the silence. The leader of prayer needs to have T.S. Eliot's words by heart:

You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.

And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

It is possible (and necessary if common prayer is to move beyond the superficial) for prayer to be informed by silence between the words (what Donald Swann in the title of one of his books on music called the space between the bars), and anyone who has been to Taize and experienced the worship there will know how powerful and evocative profound silence in worship can be.

Having said that, this article is concerned more with the architecture of prayer: the words and phrases, the images, the ideas, the verbal pictures and symbols with which we create space for others and within which a sense of God may be evoked.

Just as surely as stone and wood can be fashioned into a great cathedral or a tiny country church in order to make space and evoke a sense of God, so words and the silence between them can be crafted to make space for prayer.

What words shall we use? For so great an enterprise surely only the tried and tested prayers -- those which have become burnished by centuries of use -- will do?

Certainly in Anglicanism we have a rich treasury of prayers from before the Book of Common Prayer (which continues to be central to any spiritual discourse in English) and beyond it. …