Whys and wherefores

Patterned praying and the wider church

The prayers on this website are intended for daily or ‘most-days’ use. In very broad terms they fit within a long tradition of prayers written and set to assist Christians to pray regularly. The guiding principles in putting these offices (that’s a word often used to describe these regular forms of prayer) together have been two-fold. The chief principle has been to make use of the prayer that Jesus gave to his first disciples in response to the request ‘Teach us to pray’. We now usually call that prayer “The Lord’s Prayer” though it has also been known as “the Gospel prayer” or often named for it’s first phrase, the “Our Father”. There are slightly different versions of it in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Putting these together to compare them, we find that there are five topics or movements of prayer covered. Given that there is some variation it is reasonable to suppose that the point is not the exact words but the kinds of things we are being asked to make part of our regular praying.

The second principle informing the shape of these offices has been to include the reading of scripture. For many Christians reading or hearing the Bible regularly is an important discipline, and so it seems important to give room for that in a structure for regular prayer such as this. It seems best to have this component at the start of a time of prayer, perhaps this is because it is the way so many offices and prayer-time advice recommend. In many traditional offices the liturgy around the readings doesn’t particularly support the scriptural component -at least not explicitly in the prayers. In these offices, the prayers before and after the readings are intended to prepare us for hearing the scriptures and give us forms to respond, if only briefly, to them. There is also a framework for reflection offered. This might be particularly useful if you wanted to to use the scripture-centred part of the office separately from the prayer-based second part. One scenario for doing it like that might be to have two times of prayer during the day using one part in each prayer time.

A further principle has been to enable people to pray these offices together as well as singly. The offices are designed with a small group praying them in mind. It doesn’t have to be that way; a person on their own could pray the office -in fact for me that is the usual way it happens. It does act as a reminder though that prayer is envisaged to be a communal activity at heart. After all, the Lord’s Prayer itself supposes a community of prayer: “Our Father … give us … as we forgive…” etc. All of this means that many of the prayers are composed for two or more voices in dialogue. The default is that one voice would say one part of those prayers and the rest of the voices (whether one or more) would say the other part. Obviously, the voice for the first part could vary, and the ‘lead’ in that sense could rotate between participants. If you pray this physically alone, simply take both parts yourself. It works out fine, just remember if you do occasionally pray with others, to be aware that you may fall into habits of speech that need adjusting when sharing the prayers with others and you may want to check whether your prayer partner is expecting you to join in with the responses or not.

Some background

Many of the existing orders of regular pre-written prayers were developed for and by people in monastic communities. Some have been developed so as to simplify or make them more serviceable for those who live outside of monastic communities -this would include Anglican Morning and Evening Prayer.  There have been, however, different approaches and we’ll come to that a bit further on. Suffice to say for now that many of the most widely available collections of offices are rooted in or simply direct copies of monastic offices.

One of the recurring characteristics of monastic offices is that they are built round saying (or, often, singing or chanting) the Psalms. The Psalms would be set, normally on a rotational basis, and during a normal full day of maybe seven offices, the whole of the book of Psalms would be recited. The nuns or monks would be expected to be praying in the rest of their time in the form of individual devotions and as they worked. They would come together up to seven times a day to recite the Psalms together and this was conceived as joining the prayer of God’s people -which arguably the Psalms are. These gatherings for reciting the Psalms would be accompanied by other prayers and scripture reading.

This is not the only pattern of praying together, historically speaking, that Christians have had. In the church of the first few Christian centuries, lay people would gather for prayer (sometimes called ‘Cathedral Offices’) where praying together rather than Psalm-recital was the central activity. It is more in the spirit of that tradition that these offices are composed. It should be said here, though, that using the Lord’s prayer as a structuring principle for a daily office has not been as common as might be expected. Probably the lack of uptake for that is that other patterns have preoccupied minds and imaginations. However, I would argue that we should consider giving pride of place to the Lord’s Prayer in our regular praying, and if it is right that it was intended to be a basis for regular prayer on the part of the disciples then we should be considering using it as a basis for a daily office. This book is an attempt to do that with a variety of forms that it is hoped will enable the Lord’s Prayer to be explored more fully and to bring fresh insight as the different forms are used.

As you use these offices you would probably become aware that many sentences and phrases in them are actually quotes or paraphrases of passages from the Christian scriptures. Part of the point of this is to help us to pray scripture to some degree. It is something that I have valued about Anglican liturgies over the years that many of the prayers quote or make use of biblical texts in this we are taking a leaf from Jesus’ book for he is depicted in the Gospels as using scripture in reflection and directly in prayer. That said, another aim in composing and compiling the prayers in these offices is to come up with fresh phrases or imagery with the hope that theses may stimulate and enliven our prayers.

The value of regular praying using set prayers.

Many Christians and others would use the word ‘liturgy’ to mean a sequence of set, pre-written, prayers. I tend to use the word with a broader meaning: for me, liturgy is the way we pattern our time with God. Thinking about it in that way puts a wider variety of ways of praying within the orbit of ‘liturgy’: For example, a Quiet Time where there is a normal pattern of asking for God’s help in reading and understanding Scripture leading into reading it, reflecting on it, perhaps learning some of it and then praying out of it, that is a liturgy. Even though there is a high degree of extemporisation in the details, the fact that it is a regular pattern (probably with very similar details of the prayers said or thought) means it is a liturgy. Many so-called ‘non-liturgical’ services of worship are actually often liturgical in the wider sense because they have a fairly predictable pattern to them from the point of view of those who regularly worship. What this means is that we need to think about the value as well as the downsides of using a pattern of set prayers on a regular basis. This is not about liturgy or no-liturgy, but rather content and Christian growth and formation.

Praying with set prayers can be helpful to us. Quite often we can find a phrase in scripture or elsewhere which captures something we would find hard to put into words. Sometimes it can do this in a style or elegance of language we find enticing in prayer and which encourages us to bring ourselves to God with it. Sometimes set prayers can awaken us to ideas of what to praise, thank or ask God for that we probably wouldn’t have done ourselves but which we are glad of as the Spirit enlivens them to us. And thene there are the times when our inner life feels dried up or weary and being able to make use of the words that are ‘there’ is helpful; it’s like being able to pray with someone else where they are able to hold us in what we cannot do. It can also be that set prayers enable us to stay focussed at times when our minds might be inclined to wonder.

One objection to set prayers -and therefore to offices of prayer- is that they are not spontaneous. The thought behind this is that only the spontaneous is authentic or genuine and therefore ‘honest’ before God. Sometimes pre-written prayers can be dismissed as ‘vain repetition’ -a phrase from Jesus’ teaching on prayer and how not to do it. I’d like to address those concerns. First of all with regard to the concern about vain repetition. It comes from the King James’ version of Matthew 6:7. Other versions have words like ‘heap up words’; ’empty phrases’; ‘babble on’ and we should note, crucially, that the next bit is to say that this meaningless repetition is like what the heathens /Gentiles /those who don’t know God do and they do it because they are trying to make God listen. Jesus’ point is that we can be confident God hears us so we don’t need to try to impress God. In relation to offices of prayer this translates to the attitude we have when we pray them: if the set prayers enable us to relate to God, fine; if we use them as a kind of bribe to impress God into listening to us, forget it. We use the forms and the words to help us to focus on God and to carry our desire to connect and to share our concerns and to be touched by God. It needn’t replace using our own words, far from it. Using set prayers can support and nurture our own prayers. In fact, in these offices, there is space written in for our own more ‘of the moment’ prayers to be brought in.

In relation to the matter of only spontaneous prayers being authentic and acceptable before God, there are a few things to think more about. One is that Jesus used set prayers or phrases as well as spontaneous ones. For example “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a quote from Psalm 22:1 -itself a prayer. And noting the use of Psalms -these are hymns and prayers which have been used for centuries by God’s people with never a sense of it being wrong to use them as prayers (whether said, sung or inwardly articulated) -this is why they are in the Bible: to be used for praying. This reminds us that using the words of others can be ‘authentic’ or can stir up within us a real connection with God. It should be noticed, too, that singing hymns and songs to God is praying and it relies on pre-written words so that many can sing together. It is hard to see how, in principle, singing prayers using someone else’s words is different to saying prayers that have been written previously.

days and seasons

This site has offices for different days and different seasons of the year. It’s not compulsory, obviously, to use them but many people do find it helpful to change forms every so often and this is one way to do this. Many people also find it good to pray along with the seasons of the church year and so there are forms to help you to do that which use imagery and phrases resonant with some of the themes of that season. You’ll see that each day has a theme which references a different part of the church’s year and there are similarities between these and the seasonal prayers themselves to a greater or lesser extent. There is also an order for ‘Everyday’ which is intended to be used anytime as an alternative to any of the others.

In addition to what you would expect in terms of seasons of the church year (Advent, Lent, Easter etc), there are some additional orders of prayer for times and seasons and themes which don’t often appear -Transfiguration is one and what I have called ‘Magnificat’ times when we might be reminded of Mary the mother of Jesus -as the name suggests the words of Mary in Luke 1:46ff form a central place in that office. You can also find a ‘Pauline Office’ which uses words from Paul’s letters to help us to pray. Creationtide is a new, developing, season in September up to 4 October. There is an office for “Dark Seasons” which was compiled with winter in higher latitudes in mind when darkness is a bigger part of everyday experience and it uses imagery of dark and light to draw on that experience as we pray.

There are also some ‘bedtime’ offices. Having a short office before bed is something that has grown in popularity in recent years and so these draw on some of the traditional prayers and imagery for Compline (the traditional late night office) but restructure them in Lord’s Prayer format. One of the constants in these offices is the use of the Nunc Dimittis -the Song of Simeon from Luke 2. In these orders of prayer it is used to round off a time of thankful reflection on the day past rather than as a response to the scripture reading. These night prayer offices are not written ‘seasonally’ but simply with some variety to be used as you find helpful.

Praying offices more than once a day?

If you are looking to pray an office more than once a day and would like to use these liturgies but would also prefer not to pray the same one twice a day. Then (assuming that you don’t count the night prayers) I suggest that it could work to use a seasonal one and a day one. So in December you might pray the Advent office in the mornings but the days’ offices on the relevant day. Or in times outside of the seasons (so called ‘ordinary time’) you might consider the days’ prayers in the mornings and use the Everyday form or the Pauline order on your second sitting.

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