Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ad Lib Liturgy

Cruising the seas of the Web on my Google surfboard, I made unexpected landfall on a tiny article from the May 28, 1905, New York Times, that included the following:

Persons brought up after the straitest sect of Presbyterianism have undergone so many shocks within the last few years that another more or less may not particularly matter. But still the proposal for what can be called only a Presbyterian Liturgy, made by Dr. Henry van Dyke, is still calculated to make to sit up in astonishment the Presbyterian General Assembly to which it was made…. [The “service book” prepared by Dr. van Dyke] is a collection of “forms of sound words” for use on the several occasions to which it is applied. We should expect that such a proposal would be made, if by any Presbyterian minister, by one well known for literary and aesthetic sensibility, as Dr. van Dyke eminently is. The practice of improvisation may be tolerated when the officiating clergyman happens to be a man of genius, of sympathy, and of taste. But in the nature of things this combination is not common….

The “service book” referenced here, which was to become the Book of Common Worship of 1906, was not the first or last effort in this direction. A Book of Public Prayer—Authorized Formularies of Worship of the Presbyterian Church as Prepared by the Reformers, Calvin, Knox, Bucer and Others was published in 1857. Subsequent to van Dyke’s 1906 version were revisions in 1932 and 1946, The Worshipbook in 1970 and, most recently, The Book of Common Worship (1993).

The New York Times article calls to our attention the perennial conversation (or controversy) regarding printed prayers for corporate worship as opposed to those of the improvised, ad lib variety. It’s a persistent problem that’s been around for a long time and is obstinate enough as to not likely go away any time soon.

On one side of this great liturgical divide are those who prefer to pray impromptu, from the depths of the soul, they would argue (certainly not off the tops of their heads, as opponents complain). Extemporaneous prayer by the leader of worship far surpasses, they say, anything scrawled or typed by someone else, somewhere else at some time long ago. God wants to know what’s in our hearts now, not what an unknown author wrote once upon a time.

The loyal opposition in this debate counters with the observation that on-the-spot praying is often riddled with ums, ahs, and repetitious phrases, and sounds casual and tossed off. Collections of prayers and forms that have survived use for generations and even centuries offer a solid resource for worshipping communities even today. We do well, they say, to rely on the best bequeathed to us and prepared for us by the liturgical poets like Henry van Dyke.

By and large, I fall in the latter category. I’m a prayer book kind of guy, which, given my background, goes without saying.

My seminary training, back towards the middle of the last century, led me to rely on the Book of Common Worship (1946). Although not entirely, but mainly as models of durable prayers. Spending time and putting effort into preparing the prayers for Sunday morning was also drilled into us. One professor repeatedly admonished us that we should spend as much time crafting prayers to the Almighty as we would writing sermons for the assembly.

Clearly, preparation was a priority. One did not ramble or scramble in leading prayer. The consequence was that the people would be misled. They would be more distracted by a faltering, fumbling prayer, than one cleanly and confidently composed in advance.

Nevertheless, the impromptu prayer people have a point. I’ve heard elegant and eloquent pre-written prayers read with all the passion of narrating the phone book. It’s easy to flatten them out, or repeat inflections so as to make them painfully boring. Presentation requires preparation too.

Leading prayers fails when the leader merely reads or recites them—they must be given devout focus by the leader. In the very process of putting pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard and writing a prayer, the author must also be praying. And then, when the prayer is used by the leader, it is prayed again as it is read aloud.

Yet the possibility—even probability—of improvisation never goes away. Always we find that ad lib that pops up at the calling of the Spirit, not really calculated in advance, though prompted by the words we’re reading. It happens as a surprise to the leader if not to the hearers, when a new spark of insight brightens the liturgy.

No matter how well we arrange the words of our prayers and fashion their imagery, there’s always the Spirit to make the best we can do even better.

If you’re a worship leader, do you write your own prayers, use a worship book, or pray impromptu? Or some of all three?


  1. I rely mostly on prepared prayers - usually drawn from our own BCW or the Episcopal 1979 BCP, though occasionally from other sources, and occasionally writing my own (writing good prayers is really hard!). I agree they must be prayed rather than recited, and I strive to do so. And I would definitely agree that we should be responsive to the prompting of the Spirit to depart from prepared prayer texts.

    When I was leading worship on a weekly basis, the Prayers of the People would have a prepared structure, but I would "ad lib" specific petitions based on what worshipers had shared aloud during the joys and concerns just prior to the time of prayer. I never did lead my congregation to the (I think ideal) point of voicing their own prayers aloud, with the congregation following up with the "Lord, hear our prayer" affirmation.

    I only recently learned that we Presbyterians have a long tradition of prayer books. It was a welcome discovery, after having heard in seminary in the 90s that the BCW was "too Episcopalian" and "not Reformed enough"! I guess such fights have long been with us....!

  2. Something to give thought to - when actors 'improv' the successful ones do so with a great deal of training and acquired skills behind them. So while 'improv' praying can be powerful, it is usually so only when done with care and skill. It is possible to develop skills and sensibilities that allow one to improvise well, and those skills should probably be taught in seminary.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!