AT THE east end of the church where I worship, on a panel of oak
and in gold letters, stands the Lord's Prayer. It is accompanied by
the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed on the wall behind the
communion table, as is commonplace in churches that date from the
Churches were required by royal edict to place these three texts
on the east end of the chancel, replacing crucifixes and other
late-medieval ornaments. Thus positioned, they summarise for the
worshipping community the faith, conduct, and prayer of the
These texts' being prominently visible on the wall also draws
our attention to an educational strategy of the English Reformers:
these texts were to be learnt by those preparing for
Learning by heart, however, is not particularly fashionable in
contemporary educational circles, and, in the matter of prayer, it
can have its drawbacks. Witness the frustration when the language
of a familiar prayer is changed in liturgical revision. Nor does
reciting prayer necessarily mean that an individual enters into the
spirit of prayer.
This is why the catechism of the Prayer Book requires
confirmation candidates to explain the meaning of the Lord's Prayer
after reciting it. Notwithstanding these difficulties, I believe we
greatly benefit from befriending the ancient practice of learning
prayer, and the Lord's Prayer is a prime example. An example from
unusual circumstances got me thinking.
In his book Taken on Trust (Hodder & Stoughton,
1993), Terry Waite tells the story of his four years of solitary
confinement as a prisoner of Hezbollah in Beirut. Among the many
incidents that capture the reader's imagination, perhaps the
account of his mock execution stands out. Blindfolded, after
torture and a sustained period of interrogation, he is freed from
"You have been sentenced to death by Muslim law" are the
chilling words of his interrogator. "Stand."
"I would like to say my prayers," Waite requested.
"You can do that."
Waite then says the Lord's Prayer aloud and prays silently for
loved ones and his captors. He then stands, and feels cold metal
against the side of his temple. There is a long pause; Arabic music
plays on the radio. The gun is removed. "Not tonight - later," says
From the chancel wall to a prison cell in Beirut: this is prayer
in extremis. Although this could hardly be said to be a
situation common to us all, it does highlight the most obvious
benefit of learning a prayer: it allows the Christian to pray "at
all times and in all places". The learnt prayer becomes a portable
prayer-stool that can be assembled at a moment's notice. It
provides a form of prayer at a time when words may fail us. It is
like an emergency chain that is at hand to halt a train out of
Learnt prayer also becomes a native language, allowing us join
with others effortlessly in corporate prayer. Familiarity means
that we are liberated from concerns about the technicalities of
prayer (such as getting the words right), and freed for praying
about the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Perhaps we can identify how we first learnt the Lord's Prayer -
perhaps through repeated recitation in church or in school
The vision of our forebears is that, whatever befalls us, the
Lord's Prayer is a constant companion. They might even say that
Christian prayer is prayer "off the wall".
The Revd Dr James Steven is the Director of Liturgy and
Worship at Sarum College.