Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, June 22, 2009

"The Prayers of the People" done right

As a visitor to a great many Episcopal churches all over this country for many years, I can attest that the general state of "The Prayers of the People" is deplorable. The revision of the 1928 Prayer Book was supposed to move us away from rote prayers. With very rare exceptions, this has not happened. Most of the prayers in most of the churches are recited in a boring, repetitive fashion, week in and week out--and changing from Form 1 to Form 6 (or whatever) does not improve the situation. We never actually ask anything; instead, we reel off a list of names without differentiation, or we say "For (fill in the blank)" without ever identifying what we are pleading with the Lord to do "for" whomever or whatever.

I can remember only two congregations in my decades of churchgoing where the prayers were prepared and offered with imagination and deep commitment. In both cases they were composed and read by lay people who had obviously been identified as gifted in this ministry. I have never forgotten the way that these lay ministers presented immediate local problems for prayer, while directly upholding community, national and world concerns. The thanksgivings were specific, the world-wide church was remembered in its various needs, and there was a sense that God was really being personally addressed. These liturgical prayers were composed Sunday by Sunday by these gifted lay people, who used the forms provided but expanded them to meet the season, the need, the location, the current situation.

It has been about ten years since I last heard this done really well. On this past Sunday, I heard it again at St. James in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This is a congregation under great strain because their historic building, the oldest church in town, has been deemed unsafe and they have been forbidden to use it. They are meeting in a local rental hall. Yet in the main service last Sunday, the prayers were beautifully composed, earnest, and above all directly related to the concerns of the contemporary situation--from the needs of the specific congregation to the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran. Even better, they were designed to arise out of the biblical readings for the day.

The Rev. Francie Hills, rector, began by identifying two people in the congregation with these specific gifts. She gave them copies of Prayers for Sundays and Seasons, by Peter Scagnelli, published by Liturgy Training Publications (Roman Catholic). There are three books, one for each liturgical year. Francie explained, "We adapt these significantly for our use at St. James," meaning that they add and subtract according to the Episcopal Church and to the local situation, but they have a splendid liturgical template on which to base their adaptations.

Their offering certainly fell upon my ears and heart like manna.