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The Magazine: Refreshing the Prayers of the People

The Magazine: Refreshing the Prayers of the People

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.

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Rev Bruce Pocock

May I say this about prayers and about words. So many times I here wonderful words and prayers lost in a jumble of words that are said without real feeling, thought or care. They get lost in mumbles and haste. Please, please for us who prayers mean much, think about how you are presenting them. Take time, care and love doing them. Remember you are carrying our souls with your voice. Thanks for listening and God bless. Bruce

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Roselyn Drake

It can be useful to use language that is in a usual spoken form. e.g. "poor people" rather than "the poor". we rarely say "I saw some of the poor today as I went to work". I think the prayers of the people should reflect what most people in the congregation would say if they were speaking. Week after week we pray for peace in the Middle East, for example. I think we would all be shocked in peace suddenly broke out all over that part of the world. We can pray for people suffering in wars or decision making in conflict areas or even our reaction to news of war in our media with some expectation of its happening.

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Barbara Snyder

(Oh - and how could I have forgotten? Encourage people to pray the Daily Office, too. That's a very important resource, one that's right at our fingertips and a big part of our tradition, that has been going completely untapped in many places.

I think it's too bad this discipline isn't encouraged for the clergy, too, as it is - and is even required - in other parts of the Anglican Communion.)

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Benjamin Miller

I completely agree with you, Barbara. I'm 22 years old and came running to TEC/Anglicanism when I discovered the transformative discipline and spirituality of the Offices. Imagine my dismay to discover how systematically it is ignored in the culture of the average parish! There needs to be an Office revival in this communion ASAP. We expect Sunday morning to do all of the heavy lifting of formation and devotion when it should not and cannot - it is not the day of the week you worship, but rather a habitual crescendo, a highlight, of a life that is always worshipping. And (to come back to the reflections of the article), the habit of daily worship, prayer, and devotion will nourish and encourage a more robust culture of free prayer during the Prayers of the People.

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Barbara Snyder

To me, the point of the prayers is indeed that everything ought to be covered every week. We are praying for the entire world, after all. Somebody recently pointed this out to me, and I realized it was true - that is one of the really important things about the way we pray corporately, I'd say. It's one of the best things about the BCP, to me.

Most parishes I've been to do add prayers that depend on circumstances - for people affected when some disaster has occurred, for instance. I also agree with your point about leaving extra time for people to add their own intercessions; that does get hurried through too often.

But I would argue that the congregation isn't obligated to provide enjoyment for those who write the prayers; there will be many people who are suffering through some crisis and who, for just that reason, need something dependable to lean on. That's why we belong to a church that uses set prayers; we can commit the service to heart so that when we participate in it, we are actually praying - rather than reading words on a page. The two things really have very little in common.

I would suggest rather that parishes encourage members to develop and deepen their own devotional lives, where prayer of any type could be used. Teach prayer and meditation; teach the rosary; teach lectio divina; teach contemplative prayer; teach the sanctoral calendar. There are plenty of ways to help people in their own prayer lives - and that will, at least as I view it, have a much deeper and longer-lasting effect on the formation of people in prayer. Once-a-week religious services are fine, but nowhere near enough.

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Clint

Thank you, Barbara! The liturgy is there to lean on, it's not there just to be decent and in order, or to be a vehicle of creativity to continually surprise worshipers. Perhaps a secondary service is the appropriate venue for experimentation, when people who come to that service know that's what they're in for.

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Ann Fontaine

We have been using the biddings from A New Zealand Prayer Book - anyone in the congregation can start reading - people add names, etc. as well as the names on our various request lists.

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