Liturgical v. freeform prayer

Relevant for our corporate praying! A thoughtful balance from Goldsworthy…

In assessing the relative virtues of liturgical versus non-liturgical prayer, I have come to conclude the following:

  • Both liturgical (set, read prayers) and non-liturgical (extemporised) prayers can be dead and formalistic, but neither of them need be.
  • Non-liturgical services can be as predictable as liturgical services, and often are. The prayers can be just as lacking in spontaneity as liturgical prayers.
  • It is simply a fact that some people respond better to set prayers, while others find them almost intolerable. It is a personal matter, sometimes of temperament, sometimes of habit.
  • The advantage of extemporary prayer is that it can be more open to the spontaneous movement of the Spirit of God.
  • The disadvantage of extemporary prayer is that the person praying may express quite theologically unsound sentiments, or give way to sentimentality or to shear verbosity.
  • The advantage of liturgical prayer is that it is usually concise and to the point and, in the case of the Book of Common Prayer, biblically and theologically sound. Later revisions have tended to be less theologically consistent.
  • The disadvantage of liturgical prayer is that it can encourage formalism and stifle spontaneity. It can lack variety and applicability to many modern situations.
  • We can only suppose that Jesus and the apostles were brought up with a fair measure of liturgy in the Jewish traditions. Yet, there are clearly spontaneous and extemporary prayers offered from time to time. There would seem to be room for both. What is important is that prayer, whether read or extemporized, should be biblical and reflect a true knowledge of God.

I might quibble about easily we ought to assign spontaneity directly to the work of the Spirit, and I’d like to think that some Prayer Book revisions in Australia have been pretty good. But the main takeaway for me – as someone who finds liturgy to be one helpful way of ordering church – is to remember that it drives some others almost batty!

Liberty of the gospel, please. And care in using my liberty, our liberty…

Source: Prayer and the Knowledge of God (IVP), page 200.

Available in Australia from Reformers Bookshop, and internationally from Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Liturgical v. freeform prayer

  1. I dont agree that Goldsworthy is assigning ‘spontaneity’ directly to the ‘work of the spirit'(more the reverse actually – Jesus’ words about the wind blowing where it wills comes to mind). I think he is simply highlighting that, although the wind may blow where it wills, a liturgical style of prayer is by nature less affected (at least on a day to day level) by the ‘prevailing winds’.

  2. Liturgical prayers are also educative to those who pray extemporarily. Many people today don’t ask God to do something; they ask God that they will do something: ‘Father, we pray that we may live a life pleasing to you.” Very odd. Liturgical prayers will educate us to ask God to do things by his Spirit in and through his Son.

    So then, I encourage all who pray in public to read set prayers and to learn from them as they pray more informally.

    I’m with Goldsworthy on the tendency of later revisions of BCP to be less theologically consistent; that is true of AAPB and especially of APBA, in my opinion. The collects are a good example of the decline. Sydney revisions are not of the whole prayer book.

    Thanks for the post Sandy.

  3. I’ve been thinking for a few days what to say. While liturgical prayers can be educational, I think it is much more important to have deliberate explicit teaching and training in prayer. My experience with the Anglican church in PNG was deeply depressing – they follow the prayer book rigidly (which includes the Hail Mary!) and rarely did I hear extemporised prayer. So sure, you can use liturgical (and Biblical) prayers to train people how to pray, but the act of praying them won’t teach anyone by itself.

  4. Pingback: Worship Tools 8.22.12 | Worship Tools

Comments are closed.