by Charles Hoffacker
The Prayers of the People are a part of the Eucharist meant to reflect the needs and aspirations of the gathered community. Yet often a familiar form from the Prayer Book is used with practically no adaptation. Names and other specific concerns are not effectively integrated. Opportunities to address pressing and obvious topics are missed. The result is stale language and dull worship.
Here are some ways to keep the Prayers of the People fresh and engaging.
Start with an introduction that both announces the refrain and sets the tone. “Knowing that the Lord is compassionate toward all creation, let us offer our intercessions with confidence, saying ‘Lord, have mercy.'” “Rejoicing with the Christian community everywhere, may we pray for the needs of all the earth, as we say: “Hear us, risen Lord!'”
Use a variety of refrains, including seasonal ones. In addition to standbys such as “Lord, have mercy” and “Lord, hear our prayer,” consider “Lord, give us your love and grace,” “God our Joy, hear our prayer,” “Lord of Light, bless us,” or any of numerous other possibilities.
Gracefully intercede for Christian communities throughout the world. Don’t say, “In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer we remember . . . .” Say something like “We pray for the universal Church, its members and its mission, including the Province of the Indian Ocean.” When praying for provinces, dioceses and parishes, don’t feel obligated to mention the bishops and clergy by name, but if possible, say something about what’s happening in those places. If a prayer cycle serves up five churches named for St. Paul on a single Sunday, don’t mention the apostle five times, but pray for “the churches named for St. Paul in [list the communities alphabetically].”
Read together any list of names. Many parishes maintain a prayer list, usually of people in special need, yet that list is often not part of the Prayers or if included, is read by the prayer leader only. Have everyone read the first names aloud during the Prayers of the People.
Rearrange the list of names from time to time. If the list sounds too familiar, rearrange. An alphabetical list can be reversed so that it runs from Z to A!
Not everything has to be covered every Sunday. The six categories required in Rites I and II can be addressed in a great variety of ways. For example, in praying for all the authority, a congregation could intercede for the legislative branch of government one Sunday, the executive branch the next Sunday, and the judiciary on the Sunday after that.
Provide ample time for ad lib prayers from the congregation. Don’t fear the silence. Many of us need considerable time to figure out what we want to say and then to say it. Many others will pray silently during these opportunities and will do so more effectively if plenty of time is provided.
Conclude with a prayer from any of a variety of sources. Consider the Lent and Easter Season Weekday collects in Holy Women, Holy Men. Explore liturgical books from other Anglican provinces and Christian communities. Write your own prayer, going through multiple drafts to make it better each time.
Write the Prayers of the People for the ear. Read aloud what you have written down. Does it have flow, rhythm, bounce? Keep the structure spare. Avoid words that are abstract and tired. Liturgical language is poetry, not prose.
Use action verbs. Remember “all who minister in Christ’s name in our city and county” rather than “the Christians of our community.” Pray for all who teach and all who learn,” rather than “our local schools.”
Address both the general and the specific, often in the same sentence. “For troubled nations of the earth, especially Afghanistan and Iraq. “For people who labor and risk for the common good, especially the volunteer firefighters of this community.”
Deftly incorporate phrases from elsewhere in the service. Borrow language from the readings, the collect, the hymns, and other sources to enliven the Prayers of the People. Here less is usually better: five words may lighten the heart; fifteen may burden the mind.
Renew familiar prayers by editing them. If the petition “For the good earth which God has given us” has become threadbare, consider a paraphrase such as “For the earth, the air and the water entrusted to us.”
Never stop widening the perspective of your prayers. If you live in snow country, give thanks in season for those who plow roads and shovel sidewalks! Remember not only Christians and other religious folks, but all who seek after truth, liberty, and justice. Pray for believers
and unbelievers, those dear to us and those unknown to us, our friends and our enemies.
Acknowledge God’s work and our work. We are right to place before God all our concerns. Yet we can also ask God to empower us as agents of divine grace in the world. Praying does not exempt us from action, but equips us for action. Through intercession we let go of fear and despair and gain a heart of flesh, a willing spirit. The Prayers of the People can reflect this dynamic.
Musicians, preachers, and other liturgical ministers strive to offer the best they can in public worship for God’s glory, the building up of the Church, and the spread of the Gospel. Crafting the Prayers of the People calls for the same commitment and excellence.
In what ways can the Prayers of the People in your community of worship be refreshed? The work of crafting these prayers can be delightful. In itself it can prove to be an experience of prayer.
Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland.