There’s nothing common about Common Prayer

I was on holidays in country NSW earlier this year.

We attended the local community church where the prayers were led by an agile elderly gentleman, one of the congregation’s long-standing members.

He was confident, articulate and voluminous. His voice was deep, resonant and melodic. Although in his eighties, he fell to his knees like a forty year old and invited us to join him. Though twenty years his junior, my right knee only allows me to fall to my (left) knee, with the right awkwardly sticking out at an angle. So I sit for prayer these days.

For about five minutes he prayed passionately about the local church, the local community and the local rain, that is, the need for some. He finished by inviting us to join him in praying The Lord’s Prayer and launched speedily into it in the King’s English, as in King James, with the rest of us spluttering and stumbling in his wake.

His prayers did not move beyond a three km radius from where he knelt. Although, I would argue, Jesus’ prayer did get us away from our belly buttons and onto the bigger issues of this life - and the next. But I am doubtful my praying friend was thinking of either that far away or that far ahead.

There was no reason to doubt the sincerity of his words. There was every reason to question the size of his world.

I’ve never been beholden to a rigid and legalistic need to use The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), or one of its many offspring, when leading congregational prayers. Both the mother of all prayer books and many of her children have their place and have been a wonderful source of, and direction for, public and private prayer.

Nor have I ever felt that the only prayers that convey sincerity or come from the heart are the ones that roll off the tongue without the aid of words in a book or on a screen, rather than premeditated and written down beforehand.

But when our prayers don’t get beyond the first world hospital ward, past the first world Positions Vacant columns or no further than our localised version of the Warragamba Dam, we have serious issues and need radical assistance.

That radical assistance is available, not just in The Book of Common Prayer, but in many books of common prayer.

I don’t get the privilege of leading congregational prayer very much these days. But I do get to participate several times a Sunday in the prayers that my brothers and sisters in Christ lead. I want those prayers to be thoughtful, well-prepared, and reflective of all the things the Bible urges us to be concerned and praying about. I want them to be grateful, global and gutsy.

Some of the best public prayer times I have ever participated in have been when brothers and sisters, given a month, a week or a couple of days notice, have thoughtfully planned and prepared their prayers, and then articulated them with clarity and humility. They may be self-composed, selected from a ‘prayer book’ or ‘collection of prayers’ or a combination of both. They may be written out and read word for word, memorised and recited or, again, a combination of the two.

Some of the worst public prayer times I have participated in have been when the service leader has launched into the prayers without any planning or thought, operating on auto-pilot, on a wing and a prayer if you like, jumping from one random petition to the next, punctuating every phrase with superfluous words like ‘just’ and ‘really’ and ‘well’ and ‘yea’ and ‘Umm’ and ‘Arr’.

Sometimes that service leader has been me.

What a gift it is to have The Book of Common Prayer and books of common prayers, not as a pretext for laziness or legalism, but as a rich resource of Biblical themes, language and prayers. Take the latest offering, thanks to the work of The Archbishop of Sydney’s Liturgical Panel 2012 – here’s just one of scores of examples I could cite:

    Gracious God,
    Thank you for bringing to our country
    people from many races and cultures.
    Take away the mistrust and lack of understanding
    that so easily divides us.
    Increase in us true humility and love for strangers.
    Remove racism from our midst,
    that we may share this land and its bounty,
    and all may hear the gospel of our Saviour, Jesus Christ
    and know his love. Amen. (page 78)

I can’t compose prayers with that sort of clarity, simplicity and biblicity (a made up word my spell-check warns me but I’m sticking with it), let alone pluck them out of the thin air of my thick skull.

If I am to be a faithful shepherd of the flock entrusted to me, then I am to be as well prepared at the prayer desk as I am in the pulpit. And there is absolutely no reason not to be. If I have had a grueling week between committees, conferences, crematoriums and commentaries then there are two wonderful resources that should be our first option anyway.

•    The prayers of God’s people throughout history, who have spent their lives swimming in the Bible and supplicating for our world, whose prayers are printed out for our encouragement

•    The people of God in our congregations who pray, compose thoughtful prayers and whose public prayer ministry will be a blessing to us all

Let us pray . . . 


Feature photo: Jon Bowen