Spirit-led prayers in public worship are best prepared

I was going to entitle this blog ‘Spirit-led prayers in public worship are rarely extempore’, but on reflection felt that was too provocative. However, what I am wishing to counter is the sloppiness in much non-liturgical public worship which counts for prayer. To quote Andrew Walker and Robin Parry in their superb book, Deep Church Rising (SPCK, London 2014):

To extemporize prayer is often to dig into a compendium of well-worn religious clichés strung together with as much familiarity and repetition as monks receiving the Officer together, or a sisterhood of nuns telling the rosary. Extempore prayers can be personal and profound but they can also be hackneyed and shallow. Because God is a good God, we are absolutely not saying that he does not hear these prayers, but we are arguing that tossing out thoughts to heaven can betray a certain laziness of mind and an absence of spiritual discipline

Furthermore, modern research has revealed that extempore prayer is not as free as some proponents realise. In the words of Lester Ruth, an American Methodist scholar:

Typically the one praying will draw upon several repertories of formulas, phrases and clichés to create the prayer, especially biblical quotes and allusions, phrases central to the piety of the one who prayers, and standardized indicators of internal structure and transition”
‘Extempore Prayer’ in The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, London 2002

But before I develop my argument, we need first to define what we mean by extempore prayer. The word is derived from a Latin phrase ex tempore which literally means ‘from or out of time’. It is praying without premeditation or preparation. It is praying ‘on the spur of the moment’ or ‘off-the cuff’. One proof-text for such an approach is found in Mark 13.11: “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit”. But the context here is very different: it refers not to prayer but to Christians defending themselves in court. To equate the Spirit with the spontaneous is wrong. Indeed, on that basis we would have to excise the Psalms from Scripture, for many of them are most certainly not spontaneous prayers to God, but rather carefully constructed literary compositions. Another proof text drawn upon is 2 Corinthians 3.17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, but the freedom relates to salvation, and not worship.

Secondly, I need to make clear that I am not arguing for set liturgical prayers over against extempore prayer. In my retirement I am currently worshipping in an Anglican cathedral, where I am enjoying the richness and variety of Anglican collects and other set Anglican prayers – but that is not the issue. Rather my concern is that prayer that is offered in public worship should normally be prayer that has been carefully thought-through. Jesus calls us, in the words of the Shema, to love the Lord our God “with all our mind” as well as “with all our heart and with all our soul” (Matthew 22.27) – and that should be also true of our public praying. Isaac Watts, for instance, in his Guide to Prayer wrote of ‘conceived’ prayer “done by some work of meditation before we begin to speak in prayer”, as distinct from extempore prayer “when we without any reflection or meditation beforehand address ourselves to God and speak the thoughts of our hearts as fast as we can conceive them”.

Precisely how we think through our praying can vary. As a young minister I sometimes just used headings, at other times I made full notes, while occasionally I would write out in full my prayers. However, later in my ministry I always wrote out my prayers in full. I came to feel that God deserved my very best: or in the words of David, “I will not offer… to the Lord my God that which cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 2.24). It is not that I cannot extemporize in prayer – far from it, I can ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ when it comes to public prayer as well as anyone, but that is not God-honouring. Indeed, I would argue that my prepared prayers now are probably more truly Spirit-led.

Notice too ‘preconceived’ or ‘prepared’ prayers are still forms of free prayer. They are not set prayers, which although they may have beauty, inevitably lack particularity. No set prayer can ever be perfectly suited to every occasion – there is always a certain generality of expression. Nor is it true that read prayers lack warmth and become more artificial in feeling – as I read my prayers I am still pouring out my heart and soul to God. Nor is there no room for the spontaneous when prayers have been prepared – there is nothing to stop me breaking away from my text if God suddenly lays something on my heart. I have discovered that the more I have prepared my prayers, the more people are likely to thank me for my praying.

Again, let me make clear, that I am not against extempore prayer. Most of my praying is spontaneous. As a child, apart from the Lord’s Prayer, I never learnt any set prayers. Nor when I was a parent did I ever teach any prayers to my children. Personal prayer for me has always been extempore prayer; and so it continues to be. In my daily ‘quiet times’ my praying is a form of conversation with God. Similarly, in the context of counselling or visiting my prayers are extempore. At the end of a pastoral conversation I do not pull out a prayer-book, but simply and naturally lead in a prayer in which I bring before God the concerns that have been expressed. Similarly, for me extempore prayer has always been the norm in the context both of home groups and the many other meetings which are part of church life. I agree with Stephen Winward, a Baptist minister of my father’s generation, who said: “Warm, direct, intimate, personal extempore prayer corresponds to the nature of prayer as conversation with God”.

However, while extempore prayer may be the order of the day in the home of the prayer meeting, there is much to be said for prepared prayer in public services of worship. In my experience although in theory Baptists and others in a non-liturgical tradition are free to produce the very best of prayers – they are also free to abuse their freedom and produce the third-rate. Yes, prayer needs to be Spirit-led, but that is not necessarily extempore!

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