Prayer In the Consistory Room? The prayer of elders before the worship service
In many of our churches it is customary for the “serving” elder to lead in a prayer in the consistory room prior to worship service. This is a respectful tradition that has been upheld in many churches for many decades. As much as is known about the origins of the Reformed liturgy, so little can be said about the origins of this tradition.
At the time that he served as professor at the Theological School at Kampen, H. Bouwman (1863-1933) remarked on the origin of this custom: “It is very likely that this prayer originated at the beginning of the “Secession” [1834 and following year] when the believers were distressed by great oppression and when they were almost never sure that their meetings would not be disturbed by the military or the police. For these reasons the church council and the pastor felt the need to unite in prayer before the start of the service. This prayer became commonplace in the churches of the Secession and was later adopted by the churches of the Doleance [1886 and following years]. 1
There is no evidence from earlier centuries that this prayer was practised. There remains a degree of uncertainty here. Bouwman writes, “It is very likely”. And unfortunately it has remained unsure to this day.2
After the Liberation , this tradition was dropped in quite a few congregations. This often went hand in hand with the elimination of the “silent prayer” of the whole congregation at the beginning of the service. It was felt that people should be praying for a blessing on the service while still at home.
In the 1970’s, when there was a renewed focus on liturgical matters, many churches reintroduced the prayer by the elders before the worship service. The current practice in our churches is that in most councils one of the elders will offer a prayer before the first service and after the second service.
The Work of Office-Bearers
How should we view this? What is the character and purpose of these prayers? In his well-known explanation of the church order, Joh. Jansen states that the consistory prayer is certainly not an official prayer, but that it only has a “private character”. “Just as a member of the congregation asks God’s blessing in advance for himself, so one of the brothers of the consistory prays for support for the minister of the Word. 3
It seems to me that Jansen has missed the mark completely. It is not merely a private matter, but it is about the task and work of the office-bearers. The brother who leads in prayer does so in his capacity as an elder. It is the consistory that is calling the congregation together. It is also the consistory, through one of its members, that asks for a blessing over the service that is to be held. The fact that an elder prays — and not a deacon — stems from the office of the elders. They have been entrusted with the government of the church and the oversight of the teaching. Therefore, it also speaks for itself that the “serving” elder utters this prayer. After all it is he who will later on, on behalf of the church council, shake hands with the minister as a sign that the pastor is not acting on his own initiative, but as an authorized representative of the consistory.
It is true that prayers have already been offered in the members’ houses and that during the worship service they will also pray for God’s blessing, for a listening ear on the part of the congregation and for strength for the minister of the Word. But I do not believe that this takes away from the fact that it is very appropriate for the consistory that convenes the worship service and is responsible for everything that happens in that service to pray for God’s help and blessing in awareness of this responsibility. This communal seeking of God’s face before the service at the same time makes it clear that the minister does his work in the service not only by order of the consistory, but also in solidarity with his fellow servants. In a delicate way it gives expression to what is so characteristic in the Reformed view of the offices: there is a sense of collegiality, of shared responsibility and accountability for the congregation. 4In a Reformed church one is always an office-bearer together with the other brothers. Reformed church polity does not recognize “solo performances”.
A Prayer of Intercession
As for the content of the prayer, it will certainly have to be an intercession for the servant who will lead in the prayers and in the preaching. It is no small thing to proclaim God’s message to his people and to be the mouthpiece of the congregation. Whereas even the apostle Paul asks for intercession “that words may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19), how much more does this intercession apply to the minister who is ready to carry out his responsible work in the worship service!
In addition the consistorial prayer should also be a prayer for the congregation that has been called together. It is not self-evident that the members will listen to God’s message. The seed of the Word needs to fall “on good soil” (Matt. 13:8), it needs to be “heard and understood” (Matt. 13:23). All of this will also have to be prayed for in the consistory room.
Finally, we also need to pay attention to all those who have a task in the worship service. I have noticed that the elders never pray for themselves even though they are responsible for the preaching, for “guarding the doctrine”. In my opinion it is very relevant when in the prayer of the consistory it is also asked that the elders may keep proper watch over the “sound doctrine” (see Titus 2:1; 2:8).
In all of this it is very important that the elder realizes that this is not about a private prayer, but an official intercession—one that also has its own limitations. The prayer should be entirely focused on the worship service to be held. All kinds of needs and difficulties in the congregation do not belong here. The brothers do not pray in order to receive a blessing themselves. It is about intercession with a view to what is about to happen.
In churches where prayer takes place before the morning service, it is also customary to offer a prayer of thanksgiving in the consistory room after the second service. Let this prayer then be a true thanksgiving for what the Lord has given to the pastor and to the congregation in the services. It is good when the elder can refer back to the message that was delivered, although he should guard against the temptation to show how well he has been listening. Giving thanks also does not need to wait until this second consistorial prayer. It can also be voiced in the morning. After all, Paul exhorts us to send our prayers and supplications with thankful hearts to God (Phil. 4:6).
Prayer is a delicate and holy activity. The elder who is to lead in prayer will have to make preparation for it at home. Sometimes I hear rather meagre prayers in the consistory room... It is as if people have barely given a thought to what they need to pray for.
I also believe that it is proper that when new office-bearers are ordained the consistory prayer should be an agenda item for the meeting of the church council. I have never experienced this being discussed — which seems to me to be an omission. Prayer before and after the services belongs to the elder’s task.
May I conclude with something personal? Personally, I experience the consistorial prayer as a precious encouragement. You are being prayed for before you even have to get up to the pulpit! You do not go in your own strength, but a prayer is offered that is certainly answered by the Lord. You have a group of praying brothers surrounding and supporting you! I think that many of my colleagues experience this in the same way. In times when ministers do not have an easy task it can be a great comfort to know that they are carried by the prayers of their brothers in office!