Do Set Forms of Prayer Quench the Spirit?
In certain Protestant communions, such as Anglicanism (Episcopalianism for Americans) and Lutheranism, liturgical (sometimes called “written” or “preconceived”) prayers within corporate worship are expected and embraced. Not surprisingly, the collects and prayers produced by these traditions are often thoughtful, well-crafted and theologically rich. I often find myself going to the Anglican Book of Common, Prayer, for example, to enrich my own prayer life, as an individual believer and as one who presides over corporate worship.
In other Protestant communions, including neo-Pentecostalism and some variants and offspring of Puritanism, liturgical prayers are rejected and are therefore all but absent in corporate worship. In these traditions prayer must be spontaneous (sometimes called “free” or “extemporaneous”) in order to be sincerely spiritual, and liturgical prayers, conversely, are regarded as necessarily devoid of the Spirit. A corollary to this mindset is observable in the insistence of some, even within Reformed churches, that sermons must be extemporaneous in order to be open channels through which the Spirit can flow.
The question I face this month, therefore, is one Christians answer in radically different ways. The question seems to imply a suspicion, if not an objection – namely, that set forms of prayer do in fact quench the Spirit. If one were to embrace the practice of liturgical prayers, perhaps the question would be alternatively phrased; do spontaneous prayers neglect the Word? My assumption throughout is that this question relates to corporate (and not private) worship.
Wisdom from the Past
The practice of the church in this area has never been completely uniform, although room has always been made for liturgical prayers. The Didache of the early church, for example, provides a number of texts for the prayers of worship, but also permits “prophets” to pray as they wish, a sentiment echoed in the writings of many early church fathers, including Justin Martyr and Hippolytus.
The subject of prayer in corporate worship received noteworthy and sustained attention at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformed Church of Strasbourg, often the leader in liturgical renewal, developed two basic liturgical prayers for corporate worship, a prayer of confession and a prayer of intercession. Through the influence of John Calvin, these two liturgical prayers were translated into French and incorporated into the liturgy of the church of Geneva (and printed in the Genevan Psalter of 1542).
John Calvin in particular defended the use of liturgical prayers, in part because of his conviction that not every minister could be expected to have the gift of leading in public prayer. In conducting worship Calvin (and many who followed him) invariably recited verbatim the printed prayers of confession and intercession. On the other hand, Calvin was accustomed to extemporize in his prayer immediately following the sermon. This principle of embracing liturgical prayers without excluding spontaneous prayers was similarly endorsed in the Westminster Directory of Worship (1644).
Wisdom from the present
One of my favorite contemporary writers, especially in terms of his assessment of the church today, is William Willimon. That surprises some, especially when they discover that he is the Presiding Bishop of the Birmingham Area of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. You wouldn't think he and I would have anything in common, but in his writings I hear a profound and encouraging voice as he repeatedly and faithfully underscores the peril of liberalism (not to the extent that I would like, to be sure), the power of preaching and the unique identity of the church as an alternative community in the world.
In his helpful 2008 book, A Guide to Preaching and Leading Worship (previously published as Preaching and Leading Worship ), Dr. Willimon identifies the comparative strengths and weaknesses of both liturgical and spontaneous prayers, a summary of which I reproduce below with a little of my own commentary interspersed.
Liturgical prayers: strengths and weaknesses
Liturgical prayers, first of all, spare the congregation from the individual minister's moods and abilities. A congregation, in other words, can be shortchanged if its pastor woke up on the wrong side of the bed and used congregational prayer, for example, to invoke imprecations against everything and everyone bothering him. Corporate prayer is too important to be manipulated by an individual and ought always to be carefully worded, objective, catholic and sound.
Liturgical prayers, secondly, encourage the participation of pew sitters, especially if the prayers are found in the bulletin or hymnal. The Protestant Reformers in particular were strong advocates of congregational participation. Liturgical prayers, therefore, enable pew sitters to voice a more robust responsive congregational “Amen.”
Negatively, liturgical prayers can lack particularity (denying the present situation), contemporaneity (denying the present time) and specificity (denying the present people) and can devolve into cold and lifeless formalism. The insistence that they quench the Spirit, however, seems to deny the possibility of the Spirit's involvement in their initial formation.
Spontaneous prayers: strengths and weaknesses
Spontaneous prayers of course are great for all the reasons liturgical prayers aren't. They are contemporary, particular and specific, and these are all great strengths. As a pastor I agree with Dr. Willimon when he points out that spontaneous prayers, in reality, are rarely free or extemporaneous. Most of them are predictable, poorly thought out and loaded with clichés and shallow constructions; in short, the pastor's idiosyncratic ramblings.
In his book, Leading in Prayer (Eerdmans, 1995) Hughes Oliphant Old is to the point:
“For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. I hope it will always be so. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition … Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought.”
A via media
In the end I favor the predominant use of spontaneous prayers with the occasional use of liturgical prayers. I do believe, however, that pastors must prepare for their spontaneous prayers and that elders must help pastors keep corporate prayers warm and vibrant. I also favor pastors sharing their responsibilities in leading worship with elders gifted in public prayer. In the first church I pastored, for example, an elder would lead in congregational prayer at least once a month, and often when there was a guest pastor. I found that practice very healthy and enriching.
The congregation I now pastor has the rich and biblical tradition of a responsive congregational “Amen” to prayer. Perhaps this kind of congregational involvement can be increased. The congregation could respond to petitions which begin with, “Lord in your mercy…,” for example, by saying “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”
The disciples of Jesus understood the importance of prayer when they asked him to teach them how to pray. Prayer is the only thing they ever asked Jesus to teach them! In the spirit of the disciples' quest, may we continually learn how to pray, in private and public.