On Sunday I led our church through some set prayers in our REACH SA Prayer Book. Non-conformists, more independent types might want to deride me as being too clinical and stayed, not allowing “the Spirit to move”. “We need to be led by the Spirit in our church services!”, they cry.
I understand the concern, but let me explain why we use the Prayer Book to help us with our liturgy.
A “liturgy” is a “form or formulary according to which public religious worship is conducted.” Every church has a liturgy, whether you know it or not, and its either a good one or a bad one. Even churches services that claim to be spontaneously “led by the Spirit” are surprisingly similar from week to week – they have their own unspoken liturgy.
Our liturgy is based of the text and principles found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. We used a revised version. The preface rightly says:
The church and its services are not above authority of scripture but subject to it. As Article Twenty of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion aptly states :
“It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one written place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another”.
As living faith leads to good works, so sound doctrine leads to true worship.
The Prayer Book seeks to regulate our services so that they can be said to be biblical i.e. in line with the Bible’s teachings. The first way it does that is by having corporate prayers and responses that the church can say together.
Jesus is our High Priest and because of his work on the cross we hold to the Priesthood of all believers. Therefore as the people of God we all have access to God by prayer. Times of corporate prayer remind us of this great truth. We don’t need a service leader of worship lead to pray for us, as if he is closer to God or has some kind of “mediatory or priestly” function – this is especially true for the confession. (That being said, the service leader does lead us in some prayers.)
Remembering the gospel
The brilliance of the Prayer Book is that it keeps reminding us of the gospel. The pattern the service follows is SIN – GRACE – FAITH.
As the service starts, we don’t give God a hand (as if he needs it), but we are reminded that we are sinners in need of God’s persevering and pursuing grace. So the service leader will say:
“Friends, we have come here to take part in the worship of God; to confess our sins to Him and to ask for His forgiveness; to thank Him for making us and protecting us; to praise Him for His love and mercy; to hear from His holy Word, and to pray for our needs and the needs of others.”
“Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, for He has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour. Luke 1:68, 69.
“We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and rebelled; we have turned away from God’s commands and laws. We have not listened to His servants the prophets, who spoke in His Name”. Daniel 9:5-6.
“I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me”. Psalm 51:3.
We could pray this together:
Almighty God to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and rightly honour your holy name; through Christ our Lord.
After reminding ourselves that by nature we are enemies of God and we cannot earn or deserve our salvation, we are reminded of the gracious gospel offer, that whoever repents and believes in Jesus will be saved. We say the “General Confession” together:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
we have strayed from Your ways like lost sheep,
we have left undone what we ought to have done,
and we have done what we ought not to have done.
We have followed our own ways and our own desires
and we have neglected and broken Your holy laws.
Have mercy on us Lord.
Restore those who repent and confess their sins
according to Your promises declare in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Grant, merciful Father, for His sake, that hereafter
we may live a righteous and obedient life,
to the glory of Your Holy Name.
But we don’t stop there. The service leader reminds the church of God’s absolute promise by saying the “Assurance of forgiveness”:
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live. He has given authority and commandment to His ministers to declare to His people that He pardons and forgives the sins of all who truly repent and believe His holy gospel.
Therefore, let us ask Him to grant us true repentance and His Holy Spirit, that we may please Him now, and that the rest of our life may be pure and holy so that at the last we may come to His eternal joy through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We might say:
Hear these words from our Lord Jesus Christ to all who turn to him: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
After acknowledging our sin, thanking God for Jesus and asking him to help us to say no to sin – we respond declaring our faith or trust in God. We could do this in various ways. We could read a psalm together, pray the Lord’s Prayer together or recite one of the creeds. This past Sunday we responded by singing, “All I have is Christ”. The first verse goes like this:
I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still
The service continues with intercessory prayers, Bible readings, other songs and hymns, a thank-offering, announcements and a sermon – normally explaining the main Bible reading.
Original 1662 and our “modern” age
In the preface of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer it helpfully says:
“The particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged; it is but reasonable, that upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as to those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.”
Our church doesn’t use a physical Prayer Book, but have all our prayers, creeds and responses on the screen. We sometimes change the language of the prayers to suit modern ears or include our own, prepared prayers.
Quenching the fire?
To those who might accuse me of quenching the Spirit, I would offer that the Spirit has been as work in Christians for hundreds of years and especially in the writing of classic hymns, liturgies and the historic statements of faith. By not making use of biblical traditions passed down to us we may be in danger of dowsing the Spirit’s fire! Indeed, how arrogant is it to believe that you, the sacred “worship leader”, are the font of all knowledge and grace and need not rely on those who have gone before? Not only that, but the Spirit does not only work on Sundays. The Spirit has helped me the entire week to prepare for the Sunday service. The use of the Prayer Book’s liturgy certain is not quenching the Spirit, quite the contrary. In an excellent article, Samuel Leuenberger, wrote, “The Book of Common Prayer authorized in 1662 as one of the most precious gems among Christian liturgies.”
PS Of course, I love attending churches with other traditions as long as there is a well thought-through “liturgy”.
Here is another post on sin and the Prayer Book.