Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The spirit and the book

Revd Mike Smith, in this week's Baptist Times attacks the recent review of the SPCK Book of Prayers and the whole notion of a 'book of prayers.' Smith attacks written prayer as un-Baptist, arguing that in attacking the Book of Common Prayer our Baptist ancestors were insisting that only extempore prayers were a genuine expression of the Holy Spirit. He ends his attack with a resounding call, "Don't let the written text crush the Spirit."

It is easy to respond with caricatures. I am sure that some people genuinely have a talent for extempore prayer and are able to express their deepest desires in eloquent words worthy of the creator of the universe. But even Mike Smith must admit that many - most - do not. Extempore prayer is, for the most part, dull and repetitious. Tired formulae are trotted out week after week, while intercessory prayer degenerates into a shopping list of unachievable dreams and platitudinous generalities. If I pray "God bless Mummy and Daddy," it will be impossible to prove whether God has answered my prayers or not, so I won't have to deal with the awkward silence of God.

Prepared prayer has the advantage of containing the author's crafted words, sculpted and shaped to fit the precise meaning and context out of which the author is writing. When it works, written, poetic prayer can take on a life beyond that intended by the author, just as any work of art takes on a meaning beyond that intended by the artist.

A collection of written prayers - such as the SPCK one, or, indeed Dancing Scarecrow, seeks to capture this and make it available beyond the confines of the context out of which it was written.

Mike Smith seems to deny the Holy Spirit any role in that process, limiting the Spirit's work to the unthought out and spontaneous. I beg to differ. The Spirit works beyond the confines of human imagining. Folk use the prayers on Dancing Scarecrow in contexts very different to our inner city Openshaw context and find that the Spirit gives our words new meanings beyond those we put into them in the first place. Most people choose not to use our material, but for some it is meaningful and helpful. That surely is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In attacking the Book of Common Prayer, it seems to me that our ancestors were not attacking the notion of written prayer. Rather, they were attacking the power and control which insisted that everyone had to use the same worship material. In publishing their Book of Prayers, which I confess I have not yet read, SPCK seem actually to be moving us away from this kind of control, giving us even more resources to choose from, to interpret and to use in our own context. Whether or not I find this particular collection helpful, I welcome its publication.


  1. I have no claim to being a Baptist (apart from being baptised at Poynton Baptist Church) indeed if anything I come from an independent pentecostal background where extempore prayer was de rigeur.
    I can remember that in exceptional circumstances this form of praying has both lifted both heart and spirit, usually voiced by those with a God given eloquence at one extreme or by the innocent simple sweetness of those who struggle to express themselves at the other. The spectrum in between is however littered with instances of those for whom prayer usually delivered in a pseudo AV voice leaving the ordinary man in the street with a severe sense of inadequacy .
    I have come to appreciate the beauty and skill in those written prayers that have been birthed in the heart of a spirit-inspired believer, both contemporaneous and from other generations .
    There is something uniquely special about having these insights available, to take personal time over as well as to participate in using in corporate worship.
    I am not (nor ever would) place such writings/musings on a par with the received word of God, but to suggest that they would 'crush 'the work of the Spirit is utterly ridiculous! Surely the Spirit encourages us through the shared experience of our human condition and our sometimes faltering relationship with God expressed in the words of those who have 'been there'?.
    Rather than trying to elevate one form of prayerful expression over another surely we should be seeking to build each other up by a sensitive and appropriate use of both?
    Written prayer may be 'un-Baptist' but I suspect it sits very well with a God who chose to reveal himself through His Word both living and written!

  2. Hi Mike
    Thanks for your comment. You've got me wondering who you are now! I too was baptised at Poynton Baptist Church, indeed, I'm a Poynton lad.
    Although I rarely find extempore prayer helpful or uplifting, I would certainly not deny its validity - or that the Spirit can move through extempore prayer. I do, however, find myself moved, challenged and inspired by much of the thoughtful, pre-prepared prayer I experience in written form. My post is a response to a very particular letter in the Baptist Times which, in my view, seeks to 'impose' a particular style of prayer on others.

  3. Way, way back many centuries ago, or so it sometimes feels, when I was learning how to lead worship, I came across the phrase 'prepared extempore' which is, I think, what you do and what I also do for the most part. This kind of prayer is prepared and written, maybe with pauses for private prayer, maybe not, maybe with gaps for spoken bits, maybe not, but the defining qulaity is that it is prepared for a specific act of worship, not as a generic 'pattern prayer' (as the letter to the BT terms what Jesus did) nor a 'legal prayer' a la C of E etc.

    I mostly use Prepared Extempore prayer and some of it I am arrogant enough to share online for others to adpat/adopt if it works for them. Likewise I often use books and webpages as 'jumping off points'. I think the BT letter writer is wrong in dismissing books or published prayers as unspiritual. But then I really just, er, Lord, really, yeah, Jesus, yes 'n' Lord, would, wouldn't I?

    Good extempore prayer is great but I susepct it comes from a good grounding in prepared extempore. My guess is that if you lost your script or were prevailed upon to 'lead in prayer' you could do so with depth and sincerity because of, not despite, your practice of writing prayers.

  4. I was away on holiday for two weeks and just catching up on BT artilces ... I had an extemporary response to this letter and I even prepared a written one ... but then I thought that neither would be edifying.