Spontaneous prayer works well in one-to-one or small group situations, but it is often inadequate in more public contexts. This may be so because the content and structure of the prayer has not been thought through, the language of the prayer is not captivating and convincing, or unnecessary repetition and awkward colloquialisms distract and annoy. Public prayers don’t have to be perfect, but they should be well framed and carefully expressed, so that God is honoured and the church is edified as its members are united in their approach to God.

The Prayer Book services of Morning and Evening Prayer were designed to help God's people pray together in a meaningful way, inspired by the reading and application of Scripture. For this reason, it was called a book of common prayer. Read the following sections with a Prayer Book in hand, either in the traditional form or in a more updated version.

Sentences

Appropriate verses of Scripture are meant to be read aloud at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer, to prepare the congregation to confess their sins together. Together with the Exhortation that follows, these verses explain the ongoing need for repentance in the Christian life and the importance of approaching God with penitence when we meet together as his people. This pattern of preparation is designed to prevent an empty and meaningless recitation of the words of the General Confession.

In An Australian Prayer Book, the updated version of the Exhortation begins like this:

Dear friends, the Scriptures urge us to acknowledge our sins, and not to conceal them in the presence of God our heavenly Father, but to confess them with a penitent and obedient heart.

It seems ironic that in some contemporary services, where the concern is to be authentic and real, there is little use of Scripture or any form of exhortation before a confession of sins. The solemnity of the Prayer Book challenge is often replaced with remarks about nobody being perfect, or the simple encouragement to bring to mind sins committed in the previous week. This is not the same as hearing what God says about the need to repent and confess our sins!

Psalms and canticles

Psalm 95 is provided in Morning Prayer to stimulate praise and encourage a careful hearing of God's word. In both the daily services, portions of Scripture such as Luke 1:46-55 (The Song of Mary), 1:68-79 (The Song of Zechariah), and 2:29-32 (the Song of Simeon) are included, together with Psalms 67, 98 and 100, as 'canticles' or 'little songs' after the readings from the Bible. The aim is to respond to Scripture with Scripture! Furthermore, these passages provide a break between the lessons, to help the congregation respond to what they have heard.

In some modern versions of these services, seasonal verses or extra passages of Scripture such as the songs in Revelation or Philippians 2:5-11 have been suggested as alternative canticles. However, in evangelical churches today it is rare to hear Scripture being employed in this way.

Most of us use 'hymns and spiritual songs' without the 'psalms' mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16! It's worth asking ourselves whether we place too much reliance on contemporary music to edify the congregation and glorify God. Why do we consider that reciting portions of Scripture together is unhelpful? Is it simply a matter of culture and taste?

Scriptural texts in the Communion Service

The pattern of using Scripture to excite and express worship is extended in the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.

At the beginning, the Ten Commandments are used to encourage repentance, though in modern versions, the commands to love God and neighbour are provided as alternatives. As well as offering a shorter form of meditation, the 'two great commands' focus on the essential requirements of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 22:34-40), while avoiding some of the complexities associated with applying the Ten Commandments to a Christian congregation.

Scripture verses are then provided after the sermon to stimulate generous giving, and after the absolution or declaration of forgiveness to assure the congregation of God's mercy.

Some contemporary orders of service have developed these options further. Well-chosen verses give people a chance to reflect on the significance of what they are doing. They signal a change in the direction of the service and bring God's will to bear on the whole experience. They can also be used to highlight the main theme of a song that is being introduced.

Creeds as forms of praise

Biblical teaching about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is expressed in a summary way by the use of creeds. Confessing together what we believe about the character and will of God is a way of praising him (Hebrews 13:15). It is also a way of encouraging one another to hold fast to the hope we profess (Hebrews 3:1; 10:23).

The historic creeds give voice to beliefs that unite us as believers, identifying us as part of mainstream Christianity.

The Apostles' Creed, which is the form of confession used in the baptismal services, is set down for regular use in Morning and Evening Prayer. Repeating it is a way of renewing our baptismal commitment and expressing unity with believers throughout the ages.

The longer Nicene Creed is set down for use in the Holy Communion. Some modern liturgies suggest creedal passages from New Testament passages as possible alternatives (e.g. Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Philippians 2:5-11).

Confession of sin and Assurance of Forgiveness

There could hardly be any more obvious or central activity in a gospel-driven service than to confess our sins together, to be reminded of God's forgiveness, and to pray for renewed obedience to his will. Despite the teaching of 1 John 1:5-10, some people who lead services today seem to feel that it is unnecessary or inappropriate for us to do this on a regular basis. Even when a confession is provided, they sometimes unthinkingly fail to offer any assurance of forgiveness to complete the sequence.

In the Exhortation at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer, we are reminded that we can only draw near to 'the throne of the heavenly grace' as those who are truly penitent and trust in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ for pardon and renewal (Hebrews 4:14-16; 10:19-22). So praying for forgiveness is a way of acknowledging the basis of our relationship with God, before we come to him with our various petitions.

The Absolution in An Australian Prayer Book declares God's willingness to pardon and absolve 'all who truly repent and believe his holy gospel'. This declaration encourages the congregation to pray for genuine repentance and the Spirit's enabling to lead a pure and holy life. Following this pattern, confidence in the gospel can be renewed, and believers can be encouraged to persevere and grow in godliness.

An Australian Prayer Book also provides this short prayer for use by the leader instead of an absolution or declaration of forgiveness.

Merciful God, grant to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Although the Lord's Supper begins with a penitential meditation on the Ten Commandments, the General Confession and Declaration of Forgiveness come later, after the sermon, the collection, and the prayers of intercession. In this position, they can function both as a response to the ministry of God's Word and as a preparation for Communion, as the exhortations indicate.

Modern liturgies have experimented with having a confession and absolution either at the beginning or in the middle of a service. This variation has been applied to Morning and Evening Prayer as well as to the Lord's Supper. If the desire is to begin more on a note of praise and to express repentance after the teaching from Scripture, it works well to have the confession and absolution later in the service. The goal in each case is to have each part flow into the next with a certain gospel logic.

The Lord's Prayer

The prayer of Jesus has always featured prominently in Anglican services. As his model, it enables disciples to reflect his priorities and to express their unity with one another in him. But when it is used at different places in a service, there can be different emphases or implications. In Morning and Evening Prayer, when it comes after the General Confession and Absolution, it repeats and reinforces the need for God's help to live a forgiven and fruitful life. Later in the service, it occurs at the beginning of the intercessions, setting our prayers within the context of requests for God's kingdom to come and God's will to be done. There are several places where it can be used in a Communion Service.

Short responsive prayers

Another distinctive of Anglican liturgy has been the use of Scripture in responsive prayers called 'versicles and responses'. So, for example, in An Australian Prayer Book, when the leader says 'Open  our lips, O Lord', and the congregation replies 'And we shall declare your praise', two parts of Psalm 51:15 are adapted for corporate prayer. This kind of dialogue involves the congregation in brief responses to specific requests. The longest example of responsive prayer in the Prayer Book and its successors is the Litany.

In modern services, this pattern has been developed in various ways. There are patterns of intercession involving longer prayers by the leader on specific topics, with the congregation being asked to respond to an invitation like 'Lord, in your mercy' with words such as 'Hear our prayer'. At the end of Bible readings, 'This is the word of the Lord' or something similar can be followed by a response like 'Thanks be to God'.

It is easier to concentrate on prayers that are not too long and invite a response on a regular basis. Spontaneous or extempore prayer can be broken up by such responses, signalling a change of topic. Short congregational responses can also be found in more recent versions of '˜The Great Thanksgiving' in the Lord's Supper. There are also prayers of dedication and dismissal available in a dialogue form.  Examples can be found in the Resources section of this website.

Collects

A further distinctive of Anglican liturgy has been the 'collect', which is a short form of prayer, involving an invocation to God, a petition, and a pleading of Christ's name or an ascription of glory to God. Some Prayer Book collects are revisions of ancient prayers, but many were composed by Cranmer and his successors. This pattern is illustrated in the prayer at the beginning of the Communion Service (printed here as in An Australian Prayer Book):

Invocation to God Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden:
Petition cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name;
Pleading of Christ's name through Christ our Lord.

The first virtue of this prayer is the way in which God is honoured by the address. Various scriptural allusions express the reason why we should come to him with our requests. Secondly, there are simple, but profound petitions, based on what has just been said about the character of God and our need to love and glorify him appropriately. Thirdly, there is a reminder that we can only approach God in this way because Jesus Christ as mediator has made it possible (Romans 8:31-5; Hebrews 7:25).

Collects occur at significant points in Prayer Book services, such as at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, where there are petitions appropriate to the time of day, prayers for peace, and prayers for deliverance from harm. The collect pattern is expanded in prayers for the monarch, the royal family, and the clergy. In a later section, there are many additional prayers for special events, ranging from famine and war to the opening of Parliament. These topics have been expanded in modern revisions.

Formality and informality

There is a formality about such prayers that does not suit every context or occasion. Even in modern translations, they can appear stilted. But the content is biblical and the structure and method of approach to God has much to teach us. In churches where people offer their own prayers at the time of intercession, selected collects could be introduced at significant moments, to bring requests to God in succinct, biblical terms. Alternatively, spontaneous prayer on chosen topics could be introduced by a series of invitations, and conclude with a summary collect or responsive prayer.

    In An Australian Prayer Book, this pattern of intercession is suggested in the Second Order for Holy Communion, when praying for the church:

    Invitation: We give thanks for . . . We pray for. . .

    The church in other countries; the church in Australia; this diocese; N our Bishop; this parish . . .

    Collect: Strengthen your people for their witness and work in the world, and empower your ministers faithfully to proclaim the gospel and to administer your holy sacraments. Unite in the truth all who confess your name, that we may live together in love and proclaim your glory in all the world.

    Concluding response: Father, hear our prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Praying about the Christian life

There is another form of collect in the Prayer Book associated with the Epistle and Gospel readings for Holy Communion. Some of these are seasonal, but most are topical and related to the readings for the day. They are meant to be used at Morning and Evening Prayer, even when there is no Communion to follow.

These collects express profound truths about the Christian life and take seriously the struggles in which believers engage. For example, the collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity recognises that our consciences may be afraid and we may feel unworthy to ask for the good things we need. The collect for the following Sunday asks that we may so faithfully serve God in this life that we fail not finally to attain to God's heavenly promises. The collect for the Sunday after that acknowledges that if we are to obtain what God promises, he needs to make us love what he commands.

Services that fail to draw on one version or another of this rich resource, deprive the congregation of the opportunity to pray about biblical issues at the heart of their discipleship. Spontaneous prayer can so easily be limited in its focus and bland in its manner of expression. We should include in our corporate prayers the many great subjects addressed in the Prayer Book collects and be guided by their biblical language and focus. In other words, those who lead in prayer would benefit from using collects for guidance and inspiration, even when preparing their own form of words.

Thanksgivings

Paralleling the provision of prayers for special events and needs, there is a section in the Prayer Book providing a series of thanksgivings. Most of these are designed to recognise answers to specific prayers, thus teaching the importance of regularly linking petition with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6).

 

However, the General Thanksgiving (as revised in An Australian Prayer Book) encourages us to acknowledges God's goodness and loving-kindness in everything we receive at his hand (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:17. It asks that we may have such a sense of all God's mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful, and that we may declare his praise, 'not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.'

The General Thanksgiving provides a form of re-dedication to the service of God in everyday life (Romans 12:1). Although there are useful modern alternatives, there is a richness of theology and wording in the traditional thanksgiving that should not be ignored or neglected.

Next: Learning from the Communion Service

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