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We last explored the meaning of “Offertory” and what is offered in the communion service. A lively debate within the last hundred years of liturgical renewal has been about whether the next section of our service, The Prayers, is part of the offertory or not. We won’t get bogged down in this discussion but will take some time to appreciate the significant changes in The Prayers that have developed in the heritage of the Book of Common Prayer.

The first two things we need to clarify concerning prayer are ‘how to pray’ and ‘what to pray for.’  And let’s remember the guiding Reformation principle of ‘sola scriptura’: the reformers criticized the Roman Catholic church of creating doctrine and practices which had no basis in Scripture.  This included doctrine and practices concerning prayer.

Two prayer-related practices which were considered non-biblical and corrupt by the reformers were praying through the saints, and the greater power of priestly prayer over that of laypersons.

Praying through the Saints probably started innocently enough.  In the same way we sometimes think of our loved ones who have died as ‘looking over us’ there is evidence that early Christians invoked the names of deceased Saints and Martyrs in their prayers.  By the Middle Ages, however, this practice had developed into a theology that one did not have the right to pray directly to God, but needed to pray through a Saint or Martyr, or even the Blessed Virgin Mary who would, in turn, bring your concerns to God!  In late-medieval Latin masses we find long lists of saints, martyrs, patriarchs, and so on who were prayed to with the hope that they would petition God on the church’s behalf.  In fact, one of the required books for worship were called “Hagiologies” – lists of saints and the legends that had been recorded about them.  Reading from these Hagiologies were often inserted into the Epistle and Gospel readings and fulfilled the role of sermons for most services.

Added to this practice was yet another layer of prayer bureaucracy.  As the established church (in the persons of Deacons, Priests, and Bishops) slipped into positions of higher and higher recognized authority, a belief developed that, if you really wanted your prayers to be heard, a member of the clergy should offer the prayer.  Who were you, a simple commoner, to think that the Saints would have time to hear your prayers?  In the late-medieval masses, this was made abundantly clear.  The entire service was said by members of the clergy, in Latin, and sometimes whispered so that the congregation could not hear what was being said.  The congregation filled the role of passive observers.

Martin Luther first argued against these teachings in 1520 and his theology was quickly embraced by most if not all reformers.  Using scripture from 1 Peter 2:9, which says, "You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom," and Revelation 5:10, which says "Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings," Luther asserted the “Priesthood of All Believers.”  This theology insisted that any Christian, by virtue of their Baptism, could pray effectively and directly to God.

The second issue of “what to pray for,” was also challenged the reformation theologians.  By the Middle Ages Christianity had developed a very complex economy of sin and forgiveness.  Although we will explore this topic more in our next session on “Confession and Absolution,” the theology of sin and forgiveness, and its relationship to heaven and hell, had a significant effect on what was prayed for.

In medieval Christianity, there was a threefold understanding of the nature of the Church.  First there was the Church Militant – this referred to the totality of all Christians alive in the world.  Second was the Church Triumphant – this part of the church was made up of all those faithfully departed who were in heaven, at the right hand of God.  The third part was the Church Expectant.  This part was made up of those who had died but were not definitively evil enough to be sent to hell.  These souls existed in purgatory and awaited final judgement.

As you can well imagine, when a reasonably good family member died one had no way of determining whether they were in heaven or purgatory.  The good news was that one could offer prayers to nudge their souls closer to heaven, but, since the average person’s prayer was not going to do much, it was better to pay priests to say prayers (masses) for loved ones.  Prayers and entire mass services for the dead became a significant part of regular worship, and the income of priests.

The Reformers had no time for prayers for the dead, and abhorred the teachings around purgatory, which seemed contrary to their reading of Scripture.  In their theology, there were only the church militant and church triumphant, and only the church militant, the church here on earth, was ever in need of prayer.

This brings us to the Prayers as we find them on pages 75-76 of the Book of Common Prayer.  These prayers are made up of seven sections.

At the beginning there are the multiple “Biddings” to be said before the prayers themselves.

Each of the six paragraphs of the prayers themselves have themes:

  • first, general prayers for the Church;
  • second, prayers for the monarch and those in authority;
  • third, prayers for the clergy and people;
  • fourth, prayers for those in need;
  • fifth, prayers which reference the dead; and,
  • sixth, a doxology which sums up all the previous prayers.

In the very first version of the Book of Common Prayer these prayers were a little different.  Gone were the lists of saints, but a more general reference remained to “the Saints, Martyrs, Prophets, Apostles, Patriarchs, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  Also included were prayers for the dead, although what was being prayed for is not clear.  This was not appreciated by the more reform-minded within the Church of England.

Three years later the 1552 version addressed both these issues and removed the whole paragraph referring to the dead and every reference to saints.  Also in this version, the prayers were introduced by the familiar bidding, “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth.”  And this was the only Bidding.

A hundred years later, in 1662, it was deemed necessary (and maybe safe) to reintroduce prayers referencing those who had died, but the purpose of the prayer was that we might receive grace to follow their good examples, and not praying FOR them.

This became the pattern for prayer in all prayer books until our 1962 Canadian version when one final change was made.  In addition to the Bidding for the Church Militant, other Biddings were added which reflected the other themes found in the prayers themselves.

Of course, most of our Communion Service is made up of prayer, specially from this point onward.  In the weeks to come we will explore many of the changes to prayers that resulted from the English Reformation and, in doing so, uncover some of the tenants of Anglican Theology.

Note: The image above is of the ceiling of the Padua Baptistry in Italy.  This image is meant to remind the newly baptized that they are now in relationship with the ‘communion’ of the saints.  There were a multitude of saints through which one might offer prayers.