MANY clerics and lay people preparing to chair church meetings
will have had the experience of wondering how to start or finish
proceedings. (Sadly, however, some people don't seem to think
about it at all.)
Shall I select a finely wrought prayer from a favourite book or
the internet to read at the beginning? Do we need a Bible reading
as well? Should I just pray extempore as the Spirit guides me? (But
what if the Spirit seems to be moving a bit sluggishly today?)
Perhaps I could ask Jane to pray - she doesn't mind doing it off
the cuff. Or maybe I'll print off a whole short liturgy, so that
everyone can join in. Why don't we, instead of anything boringly
formal, simply stop and pray at critical points in the meeting,
whenever it seems right? Again, we could end with prayer triplets,
and let the groups of three pray together about all the issues
raised in the meeting.
But, then again, why not end with compline? Or why not simply
run a well-ordered meeting, recognising that the Church, both
individuals and the community, prays about all the critical issues
I WOULD have to confess that there have been times when the
preparation of a prayer for a meeting has been a rushed,
last-minute affair, whether selecting a written prayer or
quickly running through in my mind what I might pray extempore.
(Equally, on many occasions, I have prepared something
Members of my congregation quickly found out, when someone else
was chairing a meeting, how much I hated being asked, unforewarned,
to lead a prayer. My dislike was a combination of two aversions: to
being jumped on, and to the assumption by some lay people that only
the clergy can lead prayers.
My other pet hate was having to take part in prayer triplets,
with people I barely knew, at the end of diocesan meetings. This
had all the relaxed intimacy of sharing a small changing room with
I have also known extempore prayer by the person chairing a
meeting used as a sort of summing-up of the mind of the meeting; it
could easily shade into a summing-up of the mind of an individual
who had not really been listening to the debate.
REFLECTING on the dilemmas of prayer at meetings, however, I
have realised that we are all to some extent victims of the
strongly secularised character of contemporary discourse: the
language of spirituality and prayer is no longer natural to us; so
it feels odd and difficult when we try to make the transition from
the everyday language of practicality and business to that of
Charismatic Evangelicals may say that they have a natural
free-running language of prayer which flows out of and into
everyday concerns; that may be true in some circumstances, but
equally it can often seem like a self-conscious performance,
deliberately done in defiance of secularised norms.
If prayer is only a reaction or challenge to the language of
practical materialism, then it lacks something of the
unselfconscious naturalness of true prayer, and the 21st-century
secular world has really won.
THERE must be some ways in which it might still be possible in
the 21st century for a church meeting to say, naturally and without
any cringe-factor, like the members of the Council of Jerusalem in
Acts 15: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" about
A number of ideas are worth exploring. One approach would
be to encourage more seriously the members of a meeting to
pray about the items on an agenda before they get to it. (This is
an ideal to which many pay lip-service, but few seem to carry
There could be a quarterly or monthly time of prayer in church,
open to all, focused entirely on the next PCC agenda. That would
require clearly explained agenda items to be made available in
good time, and such clarity and efficiency would in fact be worth
more than 100 ill-prepared prayers.
Another practice, which is not used enough, is to incorporate
periods of silence into a meeting, perhaps at the beginning and
end, or at one or two significant moments through the agenda. We
could all learn from the Quakers in this regard.
Third, it would be helpful if the Liturgical Commission could
produce a number of short liturgies for the beginning and end of
meetings. Such provision would be a real answer to prayer for
THE Church is often accused of moving like a mighty tortoise,
but it is rather an indictment of us that the slowness in making
decisions is rarely caused by decision-makers' spending too much
time in prayer.
Could it be, ironically, that if more of the time of a meeting
were spent in recollected prayer, churches would come to quicker
decisions? In any case, they would surely be better ones.
The Revd Nick Jowett is a retired priest, formerly Vicar and
Minister at St Andrew's, Psalter Lane, Anglican-Methodist
Partnership, in Sheffield.