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Prayer for the week

14 December 2012

Michael Counsell commends words that are best-known as an anthem


Lord, for thy tender mercies'  ake,
lay not our sins to our charge,
but forgive that is past
and give us grace to amend
our sinful lives;
to decline from sin
and incline to virtue,
that we may walk
with a perfect heart
before thee, now and evermore.

Lidley's Prayers (1566)

THE words of this prayer have a lilt all of their own, which cry out for a musical setting. Fortunately, they were turned into one of the most bewitchingly beautiful anthems of the Tudor period.

The prayer was first published in 1570, in a section, entitled "Lidley's Prayers", of Christian Praiers and Holy Meditacions, collected by Henry Bull. Nobody knows who Lidley was, and it might be a misprint for Ludlowe's Prayers, which was mentioned in 1566.

But what made it famous was its setting as an anthem. Anyone who has sung it, or heard it sung by a good choir, will find himself or herself haunted by the simple four-part melody, with mostly one note to each syllable, which so closely fits the rhythm of the words that it seems as though no other setting were possible.

For a long time, it was thought that this anthem was by Richard Farrant, but it is now believed to be by either John Hilton or Christopher Tye, or even an unfortunate composer whose name was Mudd.

I was first asked to sing this anthem when I was a boy. There is a saying attributed to St Augustine of Hippo: "Whoever sings well prays twice." The trouble is that when you are concentrating on singing well, you have no time to think about the God you are singing to. So you need to think over the words you have just sung, later (during the sermon, perhaps?) and offer them up as a prayer.

"Lord, for thy tender mercies' sake" - we are praying to a God who loves us tenderly, like the best kind of parent.

"Lay not our sins to our charge" - we ask God not to keep an account of the good and bad things we have done; for on that basis none of us would come out with a credit balance.

"But forgive that is past" - which God has promised to do, not for our own merits, but because the price has been paid for us by the self-sacrificing love of Jesus.

"And give us grace to amend our sinful lives" - once we realise that we are forgiven, we desperately want to change our bad habits; but we are too weak to do so without God's help.

"To decline from sin" - the word literally means "to slope downwards", which is an odd phrase to use about reforming one's life. Perhaps we should rather think of declining an invitation, so that when we are tempted, we should just say no.

"And incline to virtue" - yes, becoming a better person is a hard climb, but we don't have to do it in our own strength.

"That we may walk with a perfect heart" - when you've talked the talk, then you have to walk the walk. My heart is the centre of me, and I have to become good to the very core, and as nearly perfect as I allow God to make me.

"Before thee, now and evermore. Amen." This anonymous writer has summed up, in a few simple words, the prayer of faith that each one of us would wish to make to our loving heavenly Father.

The Revd Michael Counsell is the author of 2000 Years of Prayer (Canterbury Press, 1999) and The Canterbury Preacher's Companion 2013 (Canterbury Press, 2012).

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