Gazing idly at my bookshelves, I happened to notice a copy of The Book of Common Prayer which set me wondering what lay behind the title of a work that has shaped Anglicanism to this day. Setting aside all the complex ecclesiastical politics of the 16th century, the term ‘common prayer’ seems to have had two intended meanings. Firstly, to assert that prayer belonged to all Christians and not just to an exclusive priesthood and secondly, that public prayer should represent the united expression of the body of Christ. These were, and remain, entirely worthy and biblical aims, and I want briefly to explore how this concept of ‘common prayer’ might speak to us.
Prayer and the effect of culture
The main section of Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-14) is clearly divided into two parts. The first advocates and validates private prayer, while the second, known as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, lays down the model for believers praying together. Let me stress that nothing I am about to say is intended to minimise the vital necessity of a personal, individual prayer life. However, I would like to suggest that there may well be an imbalance at this point that needs addressing.
In contrast to other cultures, western society is considered essentially individualistic, rather than community based. Though a broad generalisation, this might affect a Christian view of prayer. If you were asked which aspect of prayer was fundamentally more important, the individual or the corporate, what would you reply? I would suggest that most western believers would say that their personal prayer life should take precedence, and that it would never occur to them that many believers with different cultural influences would say the opposite.
Now, if differing cultures lead to differing perspectives on the relative importance of individual and corporate prayer, this might well go a long way to explaining why church prayer meetings enjoy far better attendance and participation in certain parts of the world than in others. But cultural patterns may be right or wrong. What does the Bible say?
Praying alone and together
When Jesus prays in the Gospel accounts, the writers frequently point out that he does so alone. Even when he is with his disciples, his prayers are often ‘private’ (Luke 9:18). This is surely significant. Christ’s relationship with his Father is unique. There were things he had to say in prayer that his disciples could not relate to. In a sense, the great high priestly prayer of John 17 is a glorious exception. At the climax of his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus prays to his Father audibly in the presence of his disciples, giving us a wonderful glimpse of what he is now praying for us in Heaven. But, even here, he prays in the first-person singular. He is sharing a personal prayer.
How different was the pattern Jesus laid down when, as mentioned above, he instructed his disciples in how they should pray. All we need notice for our present purpose is that Christian believers are here taught to pray in the first-person plural. The address is to Our Father, and all the prayers concern us. In other words, Jesus’ assumption is that his disciples would normally be praying together, with one heart and voice. This model prayer is a corporate prayer. It is designed as a ‘common’ prayer, to be used publicly as a united expression of the body of Christ.
Am I therefore saying it is wrong to pray to ‘my’ Father, for ‘me’, on my own? Of course not! It is just that Christ sees us first and foremost as members of his body, the church, and all our worship should reflect this priority. As individual believers, we can all say with the Apostle Paul that the Son of God ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). But we must never stop there. We must go on to realise with Paul that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25).
A defining mark of the church
We see the priority of corporate worship put into practice from the very birth of the New Testament church in the Book of Acts. We are told that the initial 3,000 who believed the gospel and were baptised, ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (Acts 2:42). These four elements of worship constitute an abiding and irreducibly minimum definition of a true church. In fact, every aspect of a church’s wider ministry may be traced back to them. All four elements are acts of corporate, collective, common worship. They have to be, if the church is to grow ‘to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ’ (Ephesians 4:15). Each element involves an active, intimate, organic relationship both vertically, between Christ and his body, and horizontally, between the members of the body themselves.
We may read or listen to a recorded sermon on our own but, if it is God’s word to his church, then we must hear and obey it together. It should go without saying that true fellowship and the sharing of Lord’s Supper both require the gathering of the Lord’s people. The inclusion of ‘prayer’ in this list is no exception. We should pray individually, but a true church must also be praying together as a gathered body.
The Apostle Paul doubtless did pray on his own but note how often in his letters he speaks of praying along with his companions. For instance, he writes, ‘We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you’ (Colossians 1:3). And this is no editorial ‘we’. How would Paul know, in the same letter, that Epaphras was ‘always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured’ (4:12) if they were not both present in the same prayer meetings?
The unique power of common prayer
Paul knew, as perhaps sometimes we forget, that united, common prayer is uniquely powerful. Remember, when Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven’, he was speaking in the context of the local church being gathered together for divine guidance on matters of eternal consequence (Matthew 18:15-19).
So, let’s hear it for ‘common prayer’! This is not a plea for liturgical prayer, even though the historically ingrained, nonconformist distaste for liturgy perhaps merits some re-examination. It is, rather, a plea for church-driven, church-centred prayer – which will then inevitably begin to look more like the prayer of the New Testament.
And how wonderful it would be if, in our own church prayer meetings, we started by taking seriously the plural language of the model our Saviour taught us. I think we would be surprised what a difference it would make if, instead of beginning, ‘Father, I pray…’, we chose to begin, ‘Father, we pray…’. Just a thought.
(Editor: Although churches are unable to meet together in person to pray in these times, our hope is that this article will encourage those able to pray together online and to pray together in person as soon as we are able to.)