Friday, November 13, 2015

Common prayer

I am currently reading Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio, and finding it both quite hard going (it is, after all, a proper academic thesis, and a German one to boot - though I am reading in English!) and also very stimulating.  It is a study of the church, and whilst there is a lot in it that I disagree with - including some of the more fundamental ideas, I think - there is also much that has made me think.  Here is an example of something that has got me thinking (from p 188f):

"For the church it is... critically important to assign corporate prayer the central place it deserves.  Leading a single life, the church must also have and practice one common prayer."

Common prayer is critically important because prayer in the church is "individuals organizing themselves to realize the divine will for others, to serve the realization of God's rule in the church community".  Corporate prayer is "a God given means for realizing God's purpose".  As such - and here Bonhoeffer quotes Luther - "the Christian church on earth has no greater power or work against everything that may oppose it than such common prayer.  Prayer is 'unconquerable'".

I confess that the main reason this struck me is because I am very aware that common prayer is not so regarded in the churches with which I am most familiar.  Of course, in Anglican circles this idea and practice of the church praying together - having a common prayer life - is very strong, being represented by the shared liturgy.  It was strong, too, in a different way, in the churches in which I grew up, where it took the form of the mid-week prayer meeting, and of the long extempore pastoral prayer in the Sunday service.  Neither model is free from danger - of formalism, or performance, or whatever - but that life of common prayer was there.

In the sorts of church with which I am most familiar, the main locus for prayer has moved away from Sunday services and whole-church meetings, and into small pastoral groups and special interest groups.  There is some virtue in prayer in these settings - honesty and intimacy is encouraged, for example - but I think something is also lost.  My observation is that when the small group prays, it tends to bring the prayer requests of individuals, but not of the church.  The prayer life of the church, in this model, is in danger of becoming just the aggregated prayer lives of its members; that is to say, there is no real common prayer.  Might this be why we see little evidence of the church "leading a single life"?

A couple of thoughts on how to move forward:

1.  We need to get over the idea that I can only be included in something if I am doing it.  I think one of the things I struggled with in the model of extempore prayer practised in my childhood churches was that I didn't identify with the person praying.  It didn't feel, to me, like corporate prayer, but like listening in to someone else's individual prayer.  I tend now to think that this was largely my problem. Being an individualist at heart, and essentially valuing what I did for myself over what others did for me, it was always going to be hard to get on board with this.  We need to teach about corporate prayer, and then make sure we're modelling it.

2.  We need to learn how to lead in prayer.  It's not the same as praying privately.  Those of us who lead church services need to make sure that they are services of prayer as well as worship and preaching.  We need to bathe in the Psalms more, and we need to appreciate the historic liturgies of the church more.  We need to be willing to pray big prayers - the prayers of the church, not just our individual prayers.  I wonder how much of that is about confidence?  In which case, we need to reflect more on the intercession of Christ.

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