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Bidding, not axe-grinding

18 October 2013

Raymond Chapman commends advice on the intercessions

Crafting Prayers for Public Worship: The art of intercession
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT577 )

CHANGES in modern liturgies have made a place for intercessory prayers that are integrally part of the set service, but allow for independent language and subject-matter. Samuel Wells is the latest to offer detailed advice and examples for intercessors.

He recognises the complexity and pitfalls of this type of prayer: is it always clear whether we are addressing God or speaking with the collective voice of the congregation; can we pray without being dogmatic or giving a second sermon; can we combine shared and individual needs without reading out a long list of names which becomes otiose as Sunday after Sunday passes by?

Wells looks to the collects for structure in crafting intercessions, citation of Bible passages, and hymns to support what is said. This is all very useful, though it may be questioned whether inclusion in intercessions helps with the more "difficult" and disagreeable passages of scripture, as he suggests.

A substantial part of the book is devoted to full renderings of his own intercessory liturgical prayers, covering "seasons", "ordinary time", and "occasions". These are elegant, thoughtful, and sensitive.

Sometimes there seems to be almost too much detail, particularly in enumerating human sorrows and burdens. But, as many of us have learned, there is always the danger of failing to say something particularly helpful to one or more in the congregation, and probably a bit too much is better than a bit too little. Whatever style is used, the effect of being a sharing and caring member of the congregation as well as a leader is vital. These prayers could well be read as personal meditations outside the context of a service.

Wells recognises the importance of silence, and regular but not too frequent congregational responses - best kept simple, as "Hear our prayer." The prayers for times of disaster and shared distress are particularly sensitive; a current user will need to erase and replace several references to particular past occasions and places.

Wells has gained much pastoral wisdom as Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and previously at Duke University in the United States, the latter having pleasantly left its mark on such things as "Main Street" and "practice" as a verb. I knew that I was going to like this book when I read on the first page that an intercessor can too easily inflict "a social and political manifesto on a defenceless congregation in the presence of God".

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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