The composition of Liturgical Prayer

Thirty years ago in the Church of England the nearest approach most clergy would make towards composing prayers for use in liturgical worship was in the use of introductory biddings before set prayers. Since 1966, however, considerable freedom has been enjoyed in the composition of actual prayers. particularly in the intercessions at the Eucharist. It may come as a surprise to many that for some time in the early church the celebrant had considerable freedom in composing even the Eucharistic Prayer, and the use of fixed forms became normal only in the fourth century.

It is salutary to take note of some of the advice given by the Fathers to those responsible for the composition of liturgical prayer. Hippolytus, for instance, provided a model Eucharistic prayer, much of which is contained in the third Eucharistic Prayer of Rite A in the ASB. But he made it clear that it was not at all necessary for the celebrant to utter the same words, as though reciting from memory. Each was to pray according to his ability. Lengthy and solemn prayers offered by those with the ability to do so were good, but brief prayers were not to be despised. The one important criterion was that the content of the prayer should be sound and orthodox.

Another Father, Basil the Great, seems to have made a number of creative contributions to the emerging text of the Eucharistic Prayer in his own time, incorporating features he had experienced during his travels in churches in other parts of the world. He also gave advice to those who had to compose liturgical prayers. He warned against diffuse and disorderly prayers (“wandering in mind hither and thither”), and against excessive concentration on the material world rather than on the saving acts of God. Positively he encouraged the use of material from the Holy Scriptures, and his own compositions are marked by this characteristic.

Not a few Anglicans miss the dignity and reverence of earlier prayers, with which the homespun intercessions so frequently offered today compare unfavourably, for all their immediacy and relevance. The recovery of freedom to compose prayers appropriate to the actual situation of a congregation is to be welcomed, but a great deal more care needs to be taken in the preparation of such prayers than often appears to be the case. In particular when ordinary members of the congregation are entrusted with composing prayers for use in the Liturgy, they need to be given considerable training and guidance. Liturgical prayer, after all, is the prayer of the whole community, and not simply the prayer of one individual in which others are invited to share. The Fathers’ concerns for orthodoxy, for order and solemnity, for scriptural content and perspective are important criteria that need to be borne in mind by those responsible for the composition of liturgical prayer today. Nor should they be ashamed of brevity if their ability is limited !

Tony Gelston, is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham