From a nightclub dance floor to Morning Prayer in a church Steven Young on building communities through Daily Prayer and the search for identity within the patterns of city life
City life gives you the camouflage you need to be a cultural chameleon. You can exist in many different environments but be known intimately in none of them. Within five minutes of leaving the dance-floor of an after-hours club one morning, I was sitting in the back row of a central London church waiting for Morning Prayer to begin. Although seemingly contradictory, both the church and the club scene constitute communities that are alive and kicking in our cities. Their existence is indicative of our human need for fellowship and communion. Both are filled with those who thirst for love and truth in profoundly relational ways.
A challenge to society
In the thousand capacity nightclub, the packed dance-floor disguised the loneliness of the place. The anonymity was alluring. The physical closeness gave the impression of intimacy without the risky realities involved with building lasting relationships. The sense of community lasted as long as the drugs worked and the music played. No one wanted to go home, if home meant being alone.
Over the river on Oxford Street, the shops were just opening. The captivating advertisements told the same old lie that freedom could be sold. ‘Belonging’ was a bargain away. The only voice that offered an alternative was that of a street evangelist. He abused passers-by and screamed into a megaphone about hell, sin and demons. Until he got an ASBO, and had to move to Piccadilly Circus!
That same morning, people gathered in the church to say the office together. They sat pews apart, but their corporate recitation of the psalms bound them together in a spiritual unity of tangible strength. They witnessed to the unconditional love of Christ, in a city where love is often bound with many conditions. Such communities of prayer are distinctive. They are rooted in that which cannot be known fully – and yet this is precisely why they are rooted. This paradox is expressed in their liturgy and psalmody. Communities of prayer challenge an increasingly individualistic society in which the apparent freedom of self-reliance and of consumerism has lead to disillusionment and captivity. Through such communities the
good news of the Christian gospel can be made accessible to those who are not aware of its existence or have been hurt by false projections of it in the past.
The various activities in which people were engaged that Saturday morning were all indicative of a greater search for authenticity. The daily office is a means by which the Church can promote the inherent attractiveness of Christian authenticity and community. All too often, the Church tries to make Christian authenticity accessible to others by trying to make expressions of our faith and our liturgy entertaining’. This has led to confused notions about what the Church is about. We are perceived to have lost our trust in the distinctiveness of the message we offer – to have lost our confidence in the continued relevance of the Christian message to the world today. It is not by coincidence that the favourite activity of the primary school children with whom I worked in Camden Town and King’s Cross was maypole dancing. It was one of the few things in their lives that didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t.
Part of the reason Daily Prayer remains both an underused and undervalued resource in the Anglican Church is because it is considered to be outdated and irrelevant. In many parishes, the various forms of Daily Prayer are neither used nor known to exist by anyone other than the clergy – who keep the offices privately, apart from their congregations. This helps to further the myth that the offices are designed for the clergy alone rather than for the nourishment of all. A commitment to keeping regular offices deepens faith and love in God. Daily Prayer provides stability, structure and meaning to daily life, reducing loneliness, anxiety and other problems exacerbated by them, such as depression, dependency and spiritual/physical exhaustion. Every church would benefit from allocating regular times each day at which its people would meet to pray together.
Daily Prayer crosses the boundaries of churchmanship and tradition. Corporate prayer keeps church buildings alive, open and, most importantly, prayed in on a daily basis – a visible witness in the communities of which they are part.
Communities of faith
A second objection concerns accessibility. Whilst many would argue that although Daily Prayer is fine for literate congregations, confidence is required to handle the variety of texts included in the service, and so it would be of little use to those with limited literacy or those approaching the church for the first time. Such objections are surmountable. One only has to look at how the Jerusalem Community in Paris has created liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer in a format that is beautiful yet accessible to all. That over 200 people attend the Jerusalem Community’s daily service of evening prayer at St Gervais is testament to the fact that there is a real call for such communities in our cities. The rising attendance at cathedral evensongs reflects a similar trend. What we need are not hidden huddles meeting in ghettos resistant to the contemporary world, but accessible, visible communities of faith. Such groups will not only strengthen the bond of fellowship between one another, but they will also witness to the ongoing intercession of Christ to the Father.
As yet no such community of Daily Prayer currently exists in London. There may be many complex reasons for this. Recently, much energy and emphasis has been placed on forming community through partnership and social action. However, by overlooking the importance of corporate Daily Prayer, the Church maybe ignoring one of the most valuable resources it has for building community. Are there any religious communities that would be willing to answer the call for such work in London? Or should the work be led by the laity, operating in individual parishes? There are many questions that will need to be asked. What is certain is that when such communities are grounded in faith, they will provide a witness to a God who taught his disciples that when ‘two or three are gathered together in my name there I am in the midst of them.’