What are the prayers about on any Sunday morning? What are they doing, if anything? To be blunt, are we doing anything other than talking to ourselves?
There is often a perception that to pray is to ask God for something. This theologically primitive view says I can ask God to interrupt the flow of the universe on my behalf. This idea founders upon the fact that God is apparently quite arbitrary in the answering of prayers, and is a monster who allows indefensible suffering simply because you or I did not say the right words.
This perception is betrayed so often when I go to functions which are dependent on good weather. "I hope you've spoken to him upstairs," will be the comment. It's not that anyone believes it, but this is the notion of what prayer is.
To insist that prayer works like this is to worship an idea of God which is not worthy of the Idea of God and which is not God. It is an idolatry which tries to force reality to fit our desires too much to be useful, or remotely real. It is the prayer of one who has not really understood there is no big daddy in the sky.
I hear from friends who see and feel the logic of the paragraph above, that intercessory prayer is for them the hardest to lead in church. It simply does not work. Perhaps the most we could say is "God, we believe that this is what you would want the world to be like, and so we will go out and work for this." In this way of thinking intercessory prayer is a statement of God's compassion and justice and our intentions. (But then why not just say this instead of asking God to do it?! Perhaps the Prayers of Intercession could be replaced by some Litany of Intent, or Committment.)
Of course saying any prayers depends on the idea that prayer is communion with God in some sense. That is; there really is a God there who is listening. When we pray, God hears and in some sense, answers us. So we could say that the purpose and power of prayer is not in the fact that some god can be persuaded to do things for us. The purpose and power of prayer is in the fact that we are in relationship with the Divine. We are being listened to and cared about.
At first sight this is much more sophisticated, and reasonable, than the primitive idea of asking God to do things. As we see so often in the psalms it also allows one to rail at God for the iniquities and unfairness of the world. However, the notion that God is there to listen in a way analogous to a human being also has problems. There are problems with what we are implying about the nature of God, and there are problems with believability.
The prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving in Sunday worship raise issues about the nature of God. Prayers of praise were originally based in the notion of flattery of the ruler. "Keep the Lord or the King happy and tell him how good he is and he will be kind to us and grant us what we want." We can see the truth of this from the way people's prayers of intercession and petition often spend so much time telling God how good and great he is. If God is God, why does God need to be told how good God is? If God is God, why does God need to be flattered. If God truly loved the world with compassion, would God need all this? Is not this kind of obsequious behaviour really an insult to a truly Godly god?
Prayers of praise and thanksgiving could become prayers of Awe and Thanksgiving. Awe and thanksgiving of the kind that remembers the great kindness of a friend.
"John, I can't believe that you would do this for me. There's so much going on, and yet you took the time to care about me as well!"
"My God, in this huge, overpowering world, I feel there is a place for me!"
Perhaps this is what it means when Jesus says to the disciples that he now calls them friends. This kind of prayer still seems real to me, and does not imply that God is some arbitrary despot who must be kept happy. As we see so often in the psalms it also allows one to rail at God for the iniquities and unfairness of the world. We don't have to be polite to God or else face the danger of being rubbed out!
But there is still the problem of the believability of communion with the Divine. Many of faith will talk of the peace, or comfort, or sense of resolution which comes from talking an issue out with God. How simply telling God how things feel, bad or worse, hopeless or rotten, somehow brings a release. There seems to be an acceptance of one's self... you can tell anything to God- even the things you couldn't tell your closest friend.
The first question I must ask myself about this comes because of my mentor John Gaden, who I was seeing as a spiritual director up until his death. This man had been wonderful to me. And after his death there were times I would talk to him as though I were still sitting in his study and he still alive. It worked. It was great to unload. I could almost hear John talk back to me in my imagination.
There's a wonderful line in Joan of Arc (the play) where someone charges Joan that her voices are not God, but just her imagination. She says of course it's my imagination... where else would we hear God? The problem is that if we can hear God so well in our imagination, and if we can imagine dead friends with as much clarity and the same results as imagining God.... well, is God anything more than imagination? Is the prayer of communion with God anything more than talking with ourselves?
Joan of Arc, recently captured, is speaking with Robert Beaudricourt, the Inquisitor and she says ". . . you must not talk to me about my voices."
Robert: How do you mean? Voices?
Joan: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
Robert: They come from your imagination.
Joan: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.
(Shaw, St. Joan 1923, scene 1)
And using "imagine" in the best sense of the word, some of us simply cannot imagine a God who is personal. God has become much more transcendent... too transcendent and impersonal to pray to. "I can sit in awe at the world... overcome with it... but there is no "one" to whom I can pray..."
A careful reader will notice that I keep sliding into the experience of personal prayer, rather than the corporate prayer of Sunday morning or some other time. This could just be because I have never really found much meaning in corporate prayer except when leading it myself. Or it could be a hint that successful corporate prayer needs to be able to be appropriated... it needs to be able to become the words of all the people, not just the pray-er.
In theory corporate prayer has worked because the words of the prayers expressed the wider hopes of the community about God, and its general understanding of the nature of God. So the words of the person leading the prayers were reflecting what we all knew and believed and hoped. Just how badly this can come unstuck is demonstrated with the anger those conscientised about inclusive language at the traditional masculinity worship leader or, years before, the charismatics with the traditionalists. So the feelings of today's people in the new church are quite understandable.
But sculpting new corporate prayer would not be easy. There is a wide range of experience as to who/what God is. For some prayer will seem a marginal activity, or even indulgent talking to ones' self. Others still feel a sense of the presence of the personal God. So does corporate prayer have a future in this environment?
Corporate prayer in the new church can only happen if it has personal validity. That is, if it prayer does not work for me as an individual, then prayer "in church" or among friends is not likely to either. So for those of us who lead worship, the way is clear, I think. We have to sort out prayer for ourselves. Not what we can get away with, and yet feel comfortable about, in the largely traditional congregation where we serve, nor what will 'work' in our 'new church,' if we are so fortunate. Simply, we must ask what does it mean for me? Is it real? Am I comfortable with what I do... does it "work?" Not "What can I defend before Presbytery or the Bishop or Elders," but what do I believe and do? We have to face the awkward questions I began this exploration with... really face them, and not just fob them off with the old stock replies, which do not honestly deal with them.