All Saints Worship: the Prayers

This little essay starts with an uneasy feeling. I have always been uncomfortable, when running a worship service, asking for the offering (“our tithes, offerings, and alms”) – though not for the same reasons some people are. From time to time I hear critiques of tithing during worship on the grounds of the regulative principle of worship (the idea that whatever is not explicitly commanded to be done in worship by the New Testament must be forbidden). There is no obvious instruction to tithe during worship, so it should be left out. If tithing is to happen, it should happen in some other way, perhaps with a “tithe box” set near the entrance of the worship room (don’t call it a sanctuary!).

I think there are problems with that critique, notably Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth to set aside their offering for Jerusalem when they gathered on the first day of the week (what do you think they were doing together on the first day of the week?!), but in any case, the regulative principle is not the reason I felt uncomfortable calling for the offering. Nor was the question of whether a tithe per se (a tenth of all income) is explicitly commanded in the New Testament (interestingly most people who would like to go to a tithe box don’t seem to have a problem with the concept of “tithing” carrying over from the Old Testament). No: my problem was that it felt like exacting a fee for my services. In my small church the bulk of the budget goes to paying the pastor (me) and it just feels awkward to ask for an offering that will mostly go to, er, me.

I am starting to think that this discomfort of mine betrays a wrong way of thinking about worship altogether. I still have questions (legitimate ones, I think) about how best to compensate pastors, but they are not the issue here. The issue is: who is performing the liturgy? Put another way: is worship a one-man (or two- or three-man) show? If I am the one doing the work, and everyone else is the “audience,” then the offering is payment for services rendered.

Some recent reading has helped me get a better answer to this question. A friend loaned me The Shape of the Liturgy, by Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk. Published in the 1940s, Dix does the remarkable service of tracing the history of Christian liturgy from its earliest discernible days, through the Reformation and beyond. Dix claims that very, very early, two basic types of closely related worship services (liturgies) can be found: the Synaxis (“meeting”) and the Eucharist (“thanksgiving”). The Synaxis was close to our concept of a worship service: psalms, prayers, and a sermon by the pastor. The Eucharist was, of course, the celebration of Communion, and was normally preceded by all the elements of the Synaxis. What struck me is what Dix says about the Synaxis:

The original unchanging outline of the christian synaxis everywhere was as follows:

1. Opening greeting by the officiant and reply of the church.

2. Lesson.

3. Psalmody

4. Lesson (or Lessons, separated by Psalmody).

5. Sermon.

6. Dismissal of those who did not belong to the church.

7. Prayers.

8. Dismissal of the church.

(9. On occasions a collection for the poor, the expenses of the church, etc., was made. But this was rather a separate duty of church life, which might for convenience be performed at the ‘meeting’, than a part of the synaxis itself.) (Dix, 38)

Notice that there is no prayer until non-members have been dismissed. Further, the doors would be barred! Why is that? The church took it as deadly serious that only baptized Christians have the right to come before the Father in prayer. Further, Dix’s description of what the “prayers” were like seems closer to the intimacy of a prayer meeting than like the formal “pastoral prayer” I and other pastors offer up on Sunday mornings. While there was variation, a common pattern was for a deacon to “call” the prayers. “Pray for the peace of this city, our province, and the empire,” he might command. Then the congregation would spend some time in silent or whispered prayer. Finally the bishop would close that portion of the prayers by praying for the same things. The deacon would announce another area of need: the harvest, the sick, the church in other places, etc., and the pattern would repeat. African Christians seem to practice a louder version of the same: simultaneous prayer by the congregation, concluded by the solo voice of an elder.

To summarize: only baptized Christians may pray, corporate worship is the preeminent place for prayer, and in corporate worship all baptized Christians are to pray! Dix believes that losing this has led to the bifurcation of private and public devotion (with a bigger emphasis, today, on the potency of private devotion, at least for the laity):

If the truth be told, many of the more devout of our laity have come to suppose that intercession is a function of prayer better discharged in private than by liturgical prayer of any kind, so unsatisfying is the share which our practice allows them. The notion of the priestly prayer of the whole church, as the prayer of Christ the world’s Mediator through His Body, being ‘that which makes the world to stand’, in the phrase of an early christian writer, has been banished form the understanding of our laity. Their stifled instinct that they, too, have a a more effective part to play in intercession than listening to someone else praying, drives them to substitute private and solitary intercession fro the prayer of the church as the really effective way of prayer, instead of regarding their private prayer as deriving its effectiveness form their membership of the church … Our own [method of prayer] is the product of that excessive clericalism of the later middle ages … Then and now its result upon the devout laity is to provoke an excessively individualistic conception of personal prayer. (45-46)

Wow. It makes sense. This feels like painting a historic house what you assume to be its original color, then realizing that you have to scrape off all the wallpaper and paint (including yours) in order to find out what it was really like. If Dix is right and this is the general pattern of worship of the early church then some things fall into place for me. Growing up in an excellent Reformed church, under the leadership of an excellent pastor, I appreciated morning worship (the best sermon), but loved evening worship, which was smaller and more “informal” and allowed the congregation to participate in prayer and request psalms. When studying for the ministry I discovered that evening worship is the red-headed stepchild of the conservative Reformed churches. It feels informal (disorderly!) and often allows women to pray during the service (which drives the regulative principle guys nuts), but congregations hate to give it up: it clearly scratches an important itch. Lo and behold, the churches and denominations that disparage congregational participation the most also tend to have the loftiest view of clerical status.

“Informal” evening worship as it is often practiced and the historic Synaxis elevate the office of the laity, both by calling for active participation and by excluding non-Christians (formally in the Synaxis, informally in evening worship – far fewer visitors seem to attend evening worship than morning worship). The answer to my earlier questions is that the whole church is at work – actively – in worship. Only Christians can (properly speaking) pray, and all Christians must pray.

And we haven’t even gotten to the offering yet – or the role of women in worship! Stay tuned.