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Time to ditch ‘We pray for . . .’

15 February 2019

Geoffrey Wilkinson argues for the reversal of a common custom during intercessions at the eucharist


An Order for Holy Communion: Alternative Services Second Series (London, 1967) — the lay people’s booklet

An Order for Holy Communion: Alternative Services Second Series (London, 1967) — the lay people’s booklet

LEADING the intercessions changed both for better and for worse when the Alternative Services (Second Series) Holy Communion service was introduced in 1967. It changed for the better because — for the first time since the days of the Early Church — at each service, the prayers of intercession could grow out of the scriptures that had been heard minutes before, and could be earthed in what was going on in the lives of the worshipping community.

With Series 2, no longer would the congregation hear recited the prayer of intercession that had been used in the Church of England since the publication of the Prayer Books of Edward VI in the middle of the 16th century. Further, intercessions could be led by a “Minister” — most likely to be a man, but not necessarily so. The important step was that lay people were given permission to lead intercessions.

Leading intercessions in this new way, however, posed problems as well as opportunities. Insufficient help and guidance was available; so the intercessor was left to his or her devices. From this time, the phrase “We pray for” entered the vocabulary of every person who led intercessions.

THE phrase was first hinted at in what looks like a rubric (printed in blue) in the Series 2 (1967) service, which reads: “the Priest (or Minister) may pray for . . .”. But the phrase proper was first used in A General Intercession, an alternative form of intercession in the same service. The second paragraph of this prayer begins: “We pray for the good estate of the catholic Church.” Each of the prayer’s three paragraphs ends with the words “Especially we pray for. . . ” (this prayer has become Form 2 in the Common Worship communion service).

Again, in A Short Litany (a second alternative to the Series 2 service), each intention also begins with the phrase “We pray for. . .”; and the phrase is repeated in the Alternative Form of Intercession of the Alternative Service Book 1980: “We pray for men of every race. . . We pray for your Church,” and, again, after each section, “Especially we pray for. . .”.

Since some of the five Forms of Intercession in Common Worship, which was published in 2000, are based on intercessions of earlier services, the phrase “We pray for” is given further endorsement. By this time, the cast was set: “We pray for” had attained liturgical legitimacy. More recently, many of the F Prayers — F39 to F76, pages 185 to 215 — from New Patterns for Worship (2002) use the same phrase.

SO, WHAT is wrong with saying “We pray for”? Throughout scripture, the Intercessor stands before God, pleading on behalf of God’s people. It is a profoundly responsible position.

By using the phrase “We pray for”, the Intercessor ceases to be a mediator between the people of God and God, and becomes instead a prayer leader. The proper meaning of “intercession” is thereby immediately lost.

The blue rubric in the Series 2 service directs the priest (or minister) to pray for . . . the Church, the world, the sick, the departed, as mediator for the people of God, to God; not “the Priest may invite the people to pray with him or her as a Prayer Leader.”

Using the phrase “We pray for” changes the dynamic of prayer. When the intercessor says “Heavenly Father” at the beginning of the prayer, God is addressed; when the intercessor says “We pray for”, the congregation is invited to pray for a particular issue. Prayer is suspended, before God-centred prayer resumes until the next “We pray for” invitation is given.

MOST prayer sessions are like this. They can be likened to watching a Wimbledon tennis match from the sidelines, with the back-and-forth of prayer to God and invitations to the people. To mix entreaties with prayers is like combining the Orthodox art of iconography with Western European art based on realism and perspective. It doesn’t work.

Second, “We pray for” is not prayer. At best, it is an invitation to the gathered assembly to pray for a particular concern. When Thomas Cranmer wrote the dedicated prayer of intercession for the 1552 Prayer Book, he began with a bidding, inviting the congregation to pray: “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church, militant here on earth.” He never again addresses the congregation, although further biddings (invitations to pray) follow within the prayer of intercessions, introduced by the phrase “We beseech thee”: “We humbly beseche thee most mercifullye to accepte our almose [alms] and to receive our prayers”, and again, “We beseche thee also to save and defende...

Biddings were, therefore, used not only at the beginning, but also throughout the prayer. But — and this is the important point — there is a world of difference between the Prayer Book bidding “We beseech thee”, and the contemporary use of the phrase “We pray for”. The former is God-focused, the latter is not; the former has dignity, the latter has none.

THIS point is reinforced by the rubrics that appear at the beginning of Intercession in Forms 1 and 2 of Common Worship, both of which read: “This form may be used either with the insertion of specific subjects between the paragraphs or as a continuous whole, with or without brief biddings addressed to the people before the prayer begins.”

Since the body of the prayer in Forms 1 and 2 is addressed to God, it would seem reasonable that any insertions should likewise be couched in “I-Thou” language. If the prayer is to be a continuous whole, the rubric says that any biddings are to be addressed to the congregation before the prayer begins. This is in line with Cranmer’s work in the 1552 communion service (the intercessions that appear as Form 3 in Common Worship).

Furthermore, the phrase is over-used. When we hear the phrase “We pray for” — as in “We pray for X” — our minds are conditioned for what is to follow, that is, to hear the phrase again (as in “we pray for Y”, and again “We pray for Z”). During one set of intercessions, I heard the phrase “we pray for” 15 times; that’s 45 words wasted — words that could have been put to the better use of praying.

And it’s boring. Any prayer session that is peppered with the phrase is in danger of giving God a shopping list of needs and wants. Its over-use is not likely to hold the attention of a congregation, particularly if this is repeated every Sunday.

THERE are two main ways of extracting ourselves from the “We pray for” mire in which we now find ourselves. The most obvious is to address God throughout the prayers, without faltering. Another way would be to use a litany format. In so doing, the mantle of the mediator will remain firmly on the shoulders of the intercessor, and the intercessor will remain true to the task of praying to God — for the people of God, and for the needs of the world.

The Revd Geoffrey Wilkinson is a retired priest in the diocese of Lincoln.

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