Saying Grace on a public occasion

Yet again I was asked to say Grace at the Annual Dinner of the Coroners Society of England and Wales. No doubt some might think I was singing for my supper – but actually I had to pay for my dinner too. At least it was a decent dinner! It was also a ‘grand’ dinner. Gentlemen were in evening dress, and the ladies were in their finery – medals and jewels were on display.

Once again I felt the challenge of saying Grace at a gathering when most of the company present never said Grace. Nice people as they all are, sadly most of them are not Christians. Saying Grace in such a situation fell into the same category as toasting first the Queen, and then the President of the Irish Republic (Irish coroners are always present, even although they don’t belong to the Society). So how should I say Grace on such a formal occasion?

As long-standing readers of my blog may remember, I have already written about this challenge. In my last post on the subject, I gave two examples of how I had prayed at previous dinners. But for all my experience of praying at public dinners (or breakfasts as it tends to be the case with my Rotary club), I still find saying Grace on such occasions a challenge.

The fact is that Grace is one of those prayers which normally I do not prepare. For me Grace at table is always an extempore expression of thanksgiving to God. To write out a Grace – let alone to ‘craft’ a Grace – seems an unnatural activity. Yet clearly something special was called for, not with a view to impressing Caroline’s fellow coroners, but rather with a view to gaining their attention. As I thought about the task, I felt a little uncomfortable. I was reminded of the prayer of one American pastor which was said by the editor of the local newspaper the following day to be “the most eloquent ever offered to a Boston congregation”. Prayer in the first instance is offered to God, and to God alone; yet at the same time we need to be mindful of our ‘congregation’.

I sat down in armchair with a Bible in one hand, and a concordance in the other. I looked for an appropriate Bible verse which spoke of the joy of eating and drinking, but drew a blank. So I decided to consult The SPCK Book of Christian Prayer (London 1995, and reprinted five times since), and to my delight found that there was a section devoted to ‘Mealtimes’, but none of the prayers seemed to ‘hit the spot’. I needed something which was clearly relevant to coroners. I then looked at more general prayers of thanksgiving and came across a prayer by Thomas Traherne (1636-1674):

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord, pardon my ingratitude and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered. Thou presented me with thy blessings, and I was not aware. But now I give thanks and adore and praise thee for they inestimable favours.”

Yes, I said to myself, that is a prayer to make anybody stop and think. But the language, beautiful as it is, belongs to another era – and what is more it needs to be made relate to a coronial dinner. In the end I decided to begin with the opening words of this old prayer, and then move on to a prayer of thanksgiving more specific to the occasion. So when the Master of Ceremonies called on me to say Grace, I said:

“Before we pray, let us reflect on the words of Thomas Traherne, an English 17th century poet: ‘Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O Lord, pardon my ingratitude and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts.’ Father God, for all the blessings of this life we thank you – sight, hearing, and speech; books, music and art; homes, loved ones, and rest; work, duty and service; friends, colleagues, and staff; and tonight we thank you not least for food that is wholesome and tasty; wine with body and texture; conversation that provokes laughter and reflection. Yes, for all the good things of life, we thank you loving God.”

From the comments I received after the dinner, it was clear that some of them found the quotation from Thomas Traherne arresting – it made them think. The two of the following ‘triplets; were written specifically with coroners in mind: “work, duty and service; friends, colleagues and staff”. I am afraid my description of the food, wine and conversation resulted in laughs around the room – but at least it showed they were listening. So hopefully, as well as thanking God, I ensured that the prayer caught the attention of at least some of the non-churchgoers present. If so, then presumably even in our increasingly secular society the custom of saying Grace at this annual dinner will continue – and that is no bad thing.

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