As I have described in a couple of previous articles, my husband and I have been hosting a series of Progressive Christianity Forums at our home on a monthly basis. We have gathered a group of twelve from three different Episcopal churches to discuss what it means to be a progressive Christian. During the first three sessions our conversations focused on what we think about God, Jesus and Holy Spirit and how we experience them. It has become clear that our experiences are in most cases more important to us than any theoretical or definitional ideas, although the latter are definitely a priority for some. Most of us are not theists, and although we’re very good at articulating what kinds of God we don’t believe in, we have difficulty with describing the Holy One or the Ground of Being or the Source of Love or any other such way of naming God.
And so, last month, when we focused on worship and prayer, we had a lot of debate about how we do this with non-traditional concepts of God, especially in church settings. Folks talked fairly easily about private prayer, usually meditative or contemplative, non-formulaic, very personal. They pray, and they find in varying degrees that their times of prayer feed their spirits, enrich their lives, and help shape their decisions and behavior.
In church settings, we struggled with how prayers can best be articulated. Several people talked of very special experiences, but many complained of rote prayers, prayers that tell us how to talk to God, prayers that deal with only our personal concerns and not those of the wider world. One of our more practiced members in the realm of prayer talked of these prayers in terms of energy – energy that connects us to those we care about and also to those whom we may not know at all except through shared concerns. Such prayers can remind us that we’re not alone. One person feels that corporate prayers can increase our capacity for empathy.
We talked about the Prayers of the People at St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. After the printed prayers and responses, which many of us find boring or off-putting even if they are composed by a parishioner or taken from some non-prayer book source, people are invited to offer their own prayers aloud, and they do. These can be very moving and can enhance our sense of community as the broad gamut of concerns and troubles and joys is offered. People pray about new babies, about birthdays, about jobs lost, about soldiers killed in distant wars. And we have changed the response at the end of each prayer. Instead of saying “Lord, in your mercy”, followed by “Hear our prayer”, as directed, each person concludes with “This is my prayer,” to which the congregation simply responds “Amen.” This gets away from pleading with a God to hear us and all that implies about who and how God isn’t! It gets away from begging for mercy, even after a prayer of great exultation!
I think that prayer in community settings can be moving and effective with these guidelines:
They are composed with the particular community in mind and are comprised mainly of prayers offered by individuals about things close to their hearts.
There is silence, at the beginning, after each offered prayer (with or without response) and at the end. A gong or other audible clue could be helpful here. There needs to be time and space and a felt sense of the community being together.
They do not include repeated litanies or prayerbook forms with automatic responses.
Ideally, the community would have opportunities to discuss what corporate prayer means to them, why we even do it, and what forms are compatible with progressive theology.