|Faith in Search of
5. Prayer and Worship
by Anthony Freeman
To make a start on this subject I shall define worship
in a wide sense as "the response of the creature to an experience of
God", and prayer simply as an aspect of that response. The
experience in question may be acute or on-going, and the response may be
spontaneous or deliberate.
Most organised religious activities (such as prayer and praise and
pilgrimage) begin as a deliberate response to some acute and
overwhelming experience; then as time goes on it moves into the category
of a continuing response to an ongoing experience, of which these very
activities themselves form the focus.
For example, Armistice Day services in Europe began as a response to
the experiences of the First World War. But today it is the services of
remembrance themselves that provide the core experience, which leads
successive generations - who never knew the original conflict - to
continue holding them.
Religious activity, in addition to honouring God, responds in a way
that keeps past experience in remembrance and facilitates further
experience of a similar kind.
When the experience and the response are communal, the worship is
usually regulated to take place:
- At an appropriate place (sacred sites)
- At an appropriate time (sacred dates and times of day)
- With appropriate words and actions (sacred rites and ceremonies)
- By the appropriate people (defined worshipping communities)
Continuity a Characteristic of Worship
There is a powerful conservative instinct in all religious activity
and this results in a strong sense of continuity in all four of these
elements. Even when there are new religious movements with their own
legitimating stories, links with earlier traditions are strenuously
fostered. God is thought to be most appropriately worshipped where he
has already chosen to make himself known, and at times and seasons of
proven spiritual fruitfulness.
In the case of sacred sites, this can have devastating negative
consequences, as when we see Jews, Christians and Muslims all fighting
over the same few acres of Jerusalem. Closer to home, one English church I
know of is supposedly built on an ancient spiritually powerful holy site,
where a number of lay lines cross. New-age devotees come to place their
hands on a particular pillar where they believe they can draw strength
from the very stones that occupy such a potent space.
When it comes to sacred seasons, Christians today still follow
a calendar designed to suit the agricultural year in the ancient near
When the Israelites first settled in Canaan there were three major
festivals: The first-fruits of the barley harvest in spring; the
completion of the wheat harvest in early summer; and the harvesting of
the vines and olives at the end of the summer. These agricultural feasts
were historicized as each became associated with a key event in the
Israel's time in the wilderness.
The spring harvest became Passover, when the exodus from Egypt was
celebrated. The wheat harvest was known in the Old Testament at the Feast
of Weeks, because it took place a week of weeks (7 x 7 = 49 days) after
Passover. This is more familiar to us as Pentecost, the Greeks having
rounded up the 49 days to 50. Pentecost was historicized as a memorial of
the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.
And the grape harvest was transformed into the Feast of the
Tabernacles, when the whole period of 40 years dwelling in temporary
shelters was commemorated by building shelters or tabernacles of branches
- as it still is by Jews to this day.
The Christian Church took over Passover as Easter, the feast of the
resurrection; and Pentecost as Whitsunday, the feast of the Holy Spirit.
Tabernacles left no mark, its place as the third major feast being taken
by Christmas, which draws not on Jewish antecedents but on the pagan
winter festival of northern Europe. But the same principle applies:
there is a continuity of sacred time.
Time, like place, has been the cause of great religious conflict. The
first major split in the Church arose over the timing of Easter Day.
Should it keep to the same date, like the Jewish Passover, and be
celebrated on different days of the week as that date fell, or should it
always be kept on the first day of the week, a day made trebly holy by
Christ'-s having risen on that day?
We probably have an echo of that early conflict in our gospels, where
the dating of the crucifixion if different in John's gospel from the other
three. The Synoptic Gospels all present the Last Supper as a Passover
meal. But John says that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at
exactly the same time as Jesus was being crucified, shifting everything by
That this early controversy was won by those who wanted to keep
Easter always on a Sunday - and by extension to make every Sunday a
mini-Easter celebration - may well be down to the strength of that most
distinctive aspect of Jewish sacred time, the Sabbath.
The destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews, first
by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, gave rise to the centrality
of the Torah, or the "Law of Moses". The same events made Sabbath
observance a key element of Jewish life, and for the same reason. The
Scripture and the Sabbath were both portable. They were independent of
place, and acted as a strong cohesive force when the Temple was no
longer there and Jerusalem was inaccessible.
So Christians took over the weekly pattern of life from Judaism,
transferring the chief holy day from the seventh to the first in honour
of the resurrection.
And being for several centuries without much in the way of official
buildings, they also took over the practice of daily morning and evening
prayer in private homes. This custom became highly developed in the
monasteries, and was revived in a simpler form in private houses after
the Reformation, only to have fallen into disuse in the last century.
The Contents of Worship
When it came to the holy words and actions
(technically known as rites and ceremonies respectively)
used in worship, Christians again drew largely on Jewish antecedents,
with the Psalms of David providing the backbone of the body of prayers.
The Jews of the dispersion had themselves adapted their scriptures and
applied them metaphorically, so that words once associated literally with
Mount Zion or the hills of Judah could retain their relevance in a time
and place far removed from their origin in the holy land. Christians
extended this approach, and spiritualised the Jewish writings,
re-assigning references to earthly sites such as Jerusalem and Canaan to
their heavenly counterparts.
A specially important shift in understanding related to the practice
of animal sacrifice, which stood at the heart of the Jewish system of
Christians saw the death of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice, in which
Jesus was both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrificial
victim. The crucifixion was for them the culmination of the old
sacrificial system and simultaneously fulfilled it and rendered it
This theme is worked out at length in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but
is there also in Paul ("Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us" - 1
Corinthians 5.7) and in John ("Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the
sins of the world" - John 1.29). And the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark
and Luke) all use their accounts of the Last Supper to present the
impending death of Jesus in sacrificial terms.
Because they no longer needed to offer literal sacrifices, Christians
commemorated instead the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus when they
gathered for the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup of what
they now called the New Covenant.
And this was no mere looking back to a past event, but an active
participation in it, as the events of Good Friday and Easter Day were made
present to the worshippers. Thus Paul can say to the Corinthians (1
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the
blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in
the body of Christ?
The word I have translated there as "sharing" also means communion,
fellowship, participation, and so on, in what became known as "the
un-bloody sacrifice" of the Eucharist.
It is a "sharing in" not a "sharing out" as in a meal, and the
difference is crucial. This is dramatically shown in what we know as
"the feeding of the five thousand", which is effectively a symbolic
eucharistic meal set within Jesus� earthly ministry.
The bread - which our Lord takes and blesses and breaks and gives -
is not like the proverbial cake, the slices of which get smaller the
more who take a piece. On the contrary, the more the Communion is
shared, the more it abounds.
This is because when Christians take part in the Eucharist they
actively engage in the saving death and risen life of Jesus. They do not
consume the body of Christ, as though using up some limited resource.
Rather they become the body Christ, increasing its life and vigour here on
earth. It is the ultimate "renewable" source of spiritual energy.
Again it is Paul who puts his finger on it, when he continues the
short quotation just given as follows: "We being many are one bread, one
body, because we all share in the one bread."
I was much exercised as to the best way to divide up this aspect of
our subject. I could have gone for public vs. private, vocal vs. silent,
written vs. extempore, or verbal vs. mystical. But I decided in the end to
fall back on the traditional four-fold division into Adoration,
Thanksgiving and Supplication (ACTS).
As we consider these four aspects of prayer, the ways they relate to
those other divisions of prayer-type may suggest themselves to you.
Prayer, even when practised in company with others, is a personal
thing (which is not quite the same as an individual thing). We say "Our
Father" not "My Father", but it remains a personal form of address.
Consequently, my own belief - that God is not best thought of
as an independently-existing person - is widely felt (by critics and
allies alike) to face its toughest challenge when it comes to prayer. I
shall therefore take the liberty of including under each of these heads
a brief explanation of how I personally approach these four elements of
First a general point: All religious language has the character of
metaphor and analogy, and is not entirely dissimilar from other,
non-linguistic, aids to worship.
For example, an icon or a crucifix or some other physical image
often helps to focus the eyes during prayer. And in a similar way a
particular idea or mental image of God helps to focus the mind.
One is not praying to either the metal or the mental image, but
this does not mean we aren�t praying at all. Now consider the four
classic elements of prayer.
Adoration is the prayer in which we rejoice in God for his own
sake. It directs us completely away from ourselves to that which is
utterly beyond us. John Macquarrie, writing about the prayer of
adoration, has expressed it in this way:
Mystical writers have declared God to be more than power, more
than goodness, more than beauty, and this is their way of saying
that although these qualities do point us to God, when they are
raised to the absolute they transcend our understanding ... The
human being has a need to adore, to relate to that which is
incomparable and absolute.
My critics claim I am bringing God down to our level when I speak of
God as "the sum of human values". But I am happy to use Macquarrie's
language and say that our individual human values do no more than "point
us to God", and that "the sum" of those values, when they are raised to
the absolute, indeed transcend our understanding.
It is arguable that more traditional believers, who insist on "the
existence of God as an objective being", are the ones refusing to allow
God to transcend our understanding in the way required by pure adoration.
Contrition (incorporating confession of sin) is the second
element of prayer. Handling failure and guilt is one of the life-skills
essential to healthy integrated living. For this the prayer of contrition,
grounded in the assurance of forgiveness in Christ, has been an invaluable
tool for many Christians. But it appears to need an "external" God who can
stand over against us and pronounce us forgiven.
I argue to the contrary that our own forgiveness depends above all
else on our willingness to forgive others.
This is the teaching of Jesus himself in the gospels. It is not an
arbitrary decree by God, but a psychological truth. The capacity for
receiving forgiveness is bound up with the ability to bestow it.
And this in turn is bound up with the capacity for love. Forgiving one
another in love, and receiving forgiveness with humility and gratitude,
are practical matters at the centre of the Christian life. They are never
easy, and the variety of spiritual exercises which come under the umbrella
title of the prayer of contrition provides a useful - even an essential -
support for this dimension of Christian living.
But none of this depends on an objective personal God.
Thanksgiving is the prayer of gratitude. It is praising God for
his goodness in his works, especially where we ourselves are the
So can thanksgiving survive without an objective creating, caring,
redeeming God? I believe it can. "Count your blessings" is still wise
advice. And "an attitude of gratitude" - the signature tune of Christian
stewardship - is a remedy against many spiritual and emotional ills.
There is an acknowledgement here of all that is "given" in our
lives, of all that is not of our own making. It need not entail belief
in a supernatural provider in order to fulfill its role in shaping our
lives and attitudes.
Supplication (embracing both petition and intercession) is the
last of our four aspects of prayer, and the one which more than all the
others apparently demands that God be an independent agent able to
respond to requests.
This is an aspect of prayer which creates difficulties for all who
take its implications seriously, and traditional theists are arguably in
a worse case than radicals like me. The hard questions are well known:
How can God, who is both almighty and all-good, so often
appear to deny his petitioners their legitimate requests?
Why should God, "who knows our necessities before we ask and
our ignorance in asking", nonetheless require such asking to be
If nature is governed by his own "laws which never can be
broken", how can God intervene in answer to prayer without
The whole thing becomes more explicable if we transform the picture
of God as almighty-but-reluctant, into one of him as desirous of helping
us, but deliberately limiting himself to working with us rather than
Looked at in this way, the role of prayer is not a matter of trying
to persuade God to do something he otherwise would not do, but of
aligning the human will with the divine will in order to enable their
joint desire to be accomplished. On this model, "Thy will be done," is
not a passive resignation to the inevitable, but a co-operative venture.
"Thy will" and "my will" are not assumed to be at variance, but trusted
to be in ultimate conformity.
Once we see human prayer not as an exercise in twisting the arm of
the Almighty, nor as an exercise in magic, but as an agency for
achieving good outcomes, then all is changed.
We can understand the role of God (the sum of all our values) in
relation to the setting of our human goals - assuring that we pray and
strive for the right things - rather than treating God as the reluctant
dispenser of certain things that we beg for.
Jesus the Model of Prayer
Although I have presented this way of approaching prayer in the
context of my own radical ideas about God, I firmly believe that it is
the right approach even if we stick to orthodox theism.
If we truly believe that our best source of information about God is
what is shown us in the story and person of Jesus, then we are bound to
conclude that God depends on us no less than we depend on him. God needs
our prayers, not because he refuses to help us without them, but
because he cannot
help us unless we align ourselves with God's purposes.
We say that God is "almighty", but there are still limits to what he
can do. In particular, he cannot go against his own nature. For example,
he cannot do anything that is intrinsically evil, because his nature is
to be the perfection of goodness.
That is a philosophical point to be found in all the textbooks and
would be agreed by anyone who believes in God - be they Jewish, Muslim
or whatever. But as Christians we claim that our best insights into
God's nature do not come from philosophy, but from the story and person
of Jesus. And in Jesus we learn that the nature of God is not to "go it
alone" but to depend on human co-operation.
We have seen already that two of the early heresies to be condemned
by the Church were (1) the idea that Jesus was not fully human and (2)
the view that his humanity and divinity were not fully integrated in one
It is absolutely central to Christian doctrine that Jesus was and is
both fully human and fully divine. And so close are the human and divine
natures that he was and remains a single fully integrated person. Now
comes the crucial part that is so often missed.
John tells us that, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only
Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John
If this is so, we can only know God as he is made known in
God-the-Son, in Jesus. And God-in-Christ able to work only in and
through and with the human Christ, because - as we have just seen - in
him the divine and the human are perfectly harmonized in a single
Thus, while the philosophers tell us that God is perfectly good, and
therefore it is impossible that he should do anything intrinsically
evil, we as Christians will add: God is also Christ-like, and therefore
it is impossible that he should work other than in and through and with
the human race.
That is not a claim to make lightly. It is not a claim for the
fainthearted. But in the symbolism of Christ's Ascension we celebrate
the elevation of his humanity to the throne of God. Where God is, there
also is Christ's humanity - and that means our humanity, all humanity.
So for Christians God's action cannot be conceived of apart from human
action. And God's will cannot be done without human co-operation.
This puts Christian prayer in a new light. It is not an empty
charade, imposed by God to remind us of our dependence upon him, but an
expression of God's dependence upon us. It is the earthly counterpart to
the heavenly vision of Christ's humanity sharing God's throne.
Prayer is nothing less than a part of the divine-and-human action by
which God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself.
That is also why the wordless and imageless prayer of contemplation
and the mystical tradition is just as much intercessory prayer as are
the long - often too long - lists of requests read out in the vocal
prayer of public worship.
True contemplation brings an inner and unspoken awareness of
reality, and so purifies and aligns the will of the individual with that
transcendent "sum of all our values" which we call the will of God.
And in that purifying and aligning process true prayer is both made
and answered; it is prayer modeled on the prayer of Jesus himself, a
prayer that he embodied rather than uttered.