Monday, December 10, 2007

The Presbyterian Prayer

I was back in the church that I grew up in again last night. Its a Presbyterian Church of Scotland. And it was particularly stereotypically Presbyterian last night (that's not necessarily a criticism, by the way. The sermon was quite interesting - if a bit hellfire - and the hymns were very rousing...).

The thing that struck me was the prayers.

Despite the fact that the minister has changed since I grew up there, and they have a 'band' playing the music for three of the songs, the format of the service has not changed since I was young:
  1. Hymn
  2. Prayer
  3. Hymn
  4. Bible reading
  5. Hymn
  6. Offering and notices
  7. Hymn
  8. Sermon
  9. Hymn
  10. Benediction
OK, so the third hymn was a 'modern hymn' - one of those wordy Stuart Townend ones - but aside from that, the content was pretty much as it would have been in the 70s.

Its only when you go away from a place like this and experience the wider church that you question things when you come back. What I found myself wondering last night was:

Who is the opening prayer for?

The opening prayer at this church, like a great many presbyterian churches I have attended, was a long and wordy thing. Must have been at least 7 or 8 minutes long, maybe more. In most of the churches I have attended since leaving home, the prayers have been shorter. Jesus said explicity that it is not because of long prayers that you are heard. So why is the presbyterian prayer so long?

I found myself thinking about the style and content of the prayer, and I began to question the history of this format of prayer. I'm not saying that the current minister believes this of his congregation, but I wonder if the original idea behind this kind of prayer was to pray on behalf of a congregation who didn't actually do any praying themselves. Faced with a congregation of folk who were just there on a Sunday because that was the done thing, the ministers of old felt the need to do all the praying for the congregation. The thing is, this is definitely not the case of the congregation who were there last night. I've known many of them since birth and they're a prayerful lot. Most of them are at the prayer meeting on Saturday night too. And yet the established pattern is to have this long prayer at the start, which more-or-less contains a second sermon, speaking of the great things of God.

But what does God get out of this? On reflection, I can't help but think that God would rather have more of his people involved in speaking to him, rather than one speaking and eighty sitting there nodding quietly. I'm all in favour of 'open prayer' in a church service setting (not just in the prayer meeting), yet I have rarely experinced this lately (in any church except this one). But I think open prayer in the main service is a long way off in this church, if they ever get there at all.

But of course, no church is perfect, and when we finally achieve perfection is won't be one denomination, but the entire universal church, prepared as a bride... Sometimes that still seems a long way off.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like that church prays like the hypocrits do long and winded. Pray in secret and God answers in secret. There is a time for prayer in a group setting, I believe, but to me secret, oneness prayer is what God wants.

Ricky Carvel said...

So you think prayer in Church is not what God wants?

Hmmm, I wouldn't go that far. And I certainly wouldn't accuse anyone in that church of being a hypocrite either. I'm only questioning the tradition that goes back several decades, if not much longer...

Steve said...

Hi There,

I'm an English professor at Northern Lights College, preparing for several classes on Emily Carr's Klee Wyck.

Emily Carr, as many of you probably know, is one of the greatest Canadian painters, maybe one of the great world painters in the twentieth century.

In the first chapter of Klee Wyck, Carr writes about visiting an "Indian" village on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

She is greeted by two missionaries, one of whom is her sister. Carr says this:

"After breakfast came a long Presbyterian prayer. Outside the kitchen window, just a few feet away at the edge of the forest, stood a grand balsam pine tree. It was very tall and straight.

The sizzling of the Missionaries' 'trespasses' jumped me back from the pine tree to the Lord's Prayer just in time to 'Amen.'"

For Carr, who elsewhere referred to God as "a great breathing in the trees," the divine, the sacred, the spiritual is most readily found "outside" the window.

Viewed in a larger context, Carr belongs to the great Romantic tradition. Her spiritual forefathers are figures like William Wordsworth.

Harley said...

Prayer must, it seems, begin with (1) the acknowledgement of our sin and transgressions--not naming them out loud--but quietly, individually, in order to be cleansed and worthy to be in fellowship with Him.

(2) Then thanking God for His love, His grace (forgiveness of sin--First John 1:9), all of the blessings we have received but surely have not earned, our family, our friends, health, well-being, and all of those things we know we need to thank him for; especially that He became Jesus, the man, and gave us the Gospel; that He suffered for us and descended into Hell and there, He defeated sin and death; admit that it has been done for us to accept or reject on our own volition based on His gift to us of "free will".

(3) Pray for His guidance, direction, help in all things to overcome sin & defeat evil in our lives as we try to live up to what Jesus did and said; to do as Jesus instructed us to do.

(4) Then ask for those things we think we need--understanding that He knows better than we what we need and don't need; admit that we need Him above all things and that His will be done in our lives and on earth as it is in Heaven; admit that our love for Him is nothing compared to His love for us...In Jesus name we pray!

That may take more than 7 minutes...But God has time for all of much time as we want to spend with him in prayer....

Ricky Carvel said...


But I'm not sure about the 'must' that you start with there.

There is no 'must' in the manner which I speak to my wife or my parents, other than to be loving and courteous, so why should there be a 'must' sequence of topics when speaking to God?