Sunday, July 10, 2011

Watch Your Language

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christian worship in this country generally went through what would be modestly called an upheaval.

It was all the fault of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Church. Protestants as well as Catholics started scrutinizing their worship practices more closely, and just about everything was up for review and renewal.

It was an exciting time when what was said and what was sung was up for grabs. Many congregations shelved much of the traditional language and music, offering instead more “contemporary” worship.

Many changes went forth into the churches, but the most significant was how we wrote and spoke our public prayers. The King James English just didn’t cut it any more. We heard those rhythms and sounds as poetic, but considered them too stilted to be authentic prayer in the mouths of twentieth-century people.

Around the same time, Presbyterians came out with the “Worshipbook” using no lofty elegant language generously seasoned with “thees and thous”, but more straightforward common English. Many old prayers were updated, and recast so the same thought was expressed in terms familiar to people in the pews. When it was published, the Worshipbook was one of the first major liturgical resources to break the log jam to let the river of contemporary English flow free in many other church publications.

One of the premises of a worship book is, of course, to provide model prayers for the people. Too often such books have been taken hostage by the clergy and other leaders, but they really are supposed to be useful for congregations.

For one thing, worship book prayers model content. From table prayers and night-time prayers to full Eucharistic prayers, examples are offered for the immense variety of circumstances and situations that call us to approach God in prayer.

Furthermore, worship book prayers display structure. The pattern of the venerable “collect”, for example, is useful in many different prayers.* Also, the Eucharistic prayer is more readily comprehended if the Trinitarian shape is evident.

By using these prayers, people and leaders alike learn what content fits into which prayers and how they can be structured. The prayer book is the constant teacher of prayer to the people of God.

Prayer books also try to find the language that fits into the minds and mouths of the people. Since English is a living language and constantly changing and growing, and those who use it are a widely diverse population, the language of prayer must be flexible.

The trick in composing prayers is to find words that convey meaning clearly. Jargon or slang usually distract. Plain English works best. But we don’t want it to be flat and pedestrian. The language of prayer needs to be up-lifting. At the same time, forced elegance does not make a prayer eloquent. There’s a fine line between flat and flashy where we find prayers that have a genuine ring to them.

Prayer books have their limits, of course. The Book of Common Worship (1993), wonderful as it is, has a shelf life, as did all its predecessors. That’s why we need to learn from the prayer book how to write and compose prayers for every “now” of worship, how to write “better” prayers in words that fit the people in the pews and set free the yearnings of their hearts for God’s grace.

Do you write new prayers for each week’s service? Or rely on a printed resource entirely? Or a combination of both? Or do you perhaps shun prayer books altogether in favor of improvised prayers? And for each of the above, why?


* The pattern followed by collects is simple and straightforward:
1) Address to God—naming the One to whom we pray;
2) divine attributes—what we know about God pertinent to our request;
3) the petition—the heart of the prayer claiming the promises of God;
4) the result desired—how God’s granting the petition will translate into the lives of the people; and
5) a doxology—praise for Christ as the mediator of prayers to God.

1 comment:

  1. Don, I think your questions about the language of prayer are thought-provoking. I'm not sure I understand how you recommend the resource materials be made accessible to lay people. A Daily Prayer book in each pew or each home? Or should the newest incarnation of the Hymnal be more like the Worship Book- a combination of both? That could be cumbersome, though, as the process hymns already means the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others.

    I use printed resources, esp. the Book of Common Worship; I write prayers, and I improvise- a combination of all three. Yes, we need continued updating.


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