That Wasn’t Your Grandmother’s Prayer Meeting   1 comment

My fellow presbyter Ryan keeps on serving up stuff for me to blog on. His latest is this quote from Tertullian’s Apology, chapter 39, in which he defends Christians against the slanders of the Jews and pagans of his day:

We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.

That sentence alone could really use some unpacking in the modern Christian context. I include it here to stimulate some of you to ponder how/why such a statement could (or could not) describe Christians today.

But, what really got my attention is this part:

We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.

Several observations, as they bear on modern Christian practice along with some notes on why I’m grateful to worship in an Anglican context.

We meet together as an assembly and congregation …

In modern terms, this means that what Tertullian describes here was not the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather, what he describes (as you can easily see when you skim through this chapter of his Apology) is a whole-congregation worship service which includes what moderns would call a “prayer meeting.”

So what?

Well, here’s what …

Prayer then (as it should still be today) was the exercise of the congregation’s priestly ministry. Priests — by very, very long precedent and pattern under the Old Covenant — are those who intercede for others with God.

I could go off on a long tangent here about contemporary agendas for the ordination of women and how off-base they are to suppose women do not have (or never had under the Old Covenant!) priestly functions. They do and always have had such functions in prayer.

But, back to Father Tertullian — notice how he speaks of Christians’ prayer as a corporate activity, not something essentially individualistic. It is the congregation’s ministry, exercised in its gathering for worship. That’s why I like being an Anglican (though other Christian communions share this feature about their ministries of prayer).

In the communion which first shaped my Chritian sensibilities, prayer was either (1) something individuals did alone, or (2) something which a few individuals (mostly old people and women) did on Wenesday evening.

No, Tertullian has it correct here, because he’s reporting how Christians in his day are following well-worn paths of Biblical pattern and precedence: prayer is the activity of the corporate body, and it occurs within a gathering convened for worship.

… that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications.

Wrestling with God as we pray. Abraham comes to mind, “bargaining” with God for the lives of Lot and his family who live in Sodom, which God is about to destroy. A great many of the Psalms have this feature: bargaining, pleading, cajoling, offering vows to do this or that (usually to offer public praise at the Temple) if God will just do this or that first.

This violence God delights in.

This bit of hyperbole is typical of Tertullian, who was a martial sort of fellow. Legend makes him the son of a Roman Centurion who was an aide-de-camp in the Roman Army in North Africa. Tertullian was also well trained in Roman law and may have been a lawyer as well. His ministry was certainly a combat against the slanders and libels of both pagans and Jews in North Africa.

So, no contemplative prayer for him! If prayer was the activity of a united host, its prosecution was as martial as an army on the march. It was a struggle, to wrest from the Almighty what pleased Him to grant, because the petitioners were adamant and persevering in their petitions.

Sound like any prayer meeting you’ve ever been to?

We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, …

Here, Tertullian is echoing the very words of Paul, who instructed the Church in his letter to his disciple Timothy with this charge:

1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

This is one of the first things I noticed when I attended my first Prayer Book worship services: There was a section of the service devoted exclusively to congregational prayer, and the first part of that section of the service was this prayer:

From the Order of Service for the Holy Eucharist, 1928 BCP:

We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose the hearts of all authorities in this and every land, that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.

From the Order of Service for Morning Prayer, 1928 BCP:

O LORD, our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee, with thy favour to behold and bless thy servant THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority;

From the Order of Service for Evening Prayer, 1928 BCP:

Have mercy upon this whole land; and so rule the hearts of thy servants THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, The Governor of this State, and all others in authority, that they, knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek thy honour and glory; and that we and all the People, duly considering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honour them,

We pray, too, … for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace,

As noted above, Tertullian reports that the Christians were asking for the things that Paul teaches the Church to ask for.

We pray, too,… for the delay of the final consummation.

Now this is the first thing I notice that I’ve seen almost nothing about, either in modern prayer ministry of any sort, or in reports of prayer “concerns” in any other times and climes (I could simply be not getting out much on this point, of course). Here’s an amazing thing, though — the ones Tertullian reports to be praying for a delay in the coming judgment are the ones who are enduring fierce persecution at the hands of the Romans. Indeed, they’re enduring persecution by just about everybody who’s not a Christian, who are happy to plunder Christians, knowting the Roman government won’t do a thing to stop them!

Truly, the priestly qualities of these Christians, to endure great suffering for the sake of those who are going to believe .(cf. 2 Peter 3:9) —well, it’s amazing.

What has always impressed me about Prayer Book worship — and, it still impresses me after 20 years — is how efficient and comprehensive the set prayers of the Prayer Book are. If you’ll scan these set prayers — either from the order for Morning or Evening Prayer, or from the order for the Holy Eucharist— in just about any but the most modern Prayer Books, you’ll see that tall of them contain well crafted, focused, and marvelously pithy prayers that fulfill the commands in the New Testament concerning what Christians ought to be praying.

When I first noticed this about Prayer Book worship, calesthenics came to mind. Calesthenics and the set prayers of the Prayer Book have many things in common — both as to their value and as to the criticisms leveled against them. Chiefly, the commonalities in their value is this: they cover all the bases. If you pray the set prayers of the Prayer Book, if you do a full compliment of calesthenics routinely — either way, you’re going to do all the basic things that promote your health, whether bodily or spiritually.

“But, calesthenics are so boring!! They’re just vain repetition!!”

Which is pretty much the criticism leveled against set prayers of any sort. In another blog, soon, I’ll take that criticism on and show how Jesus explicityly refuted it. But, for now, the repition of set prayers is no more deletorious than daily sets of pushups, setups, and deep-knee bends. And, unlike calesthenics for the body, spiritual calesthenics contain a powerful resevoir of novelty — that’s right; new stuff! — that calesthenics for the body can never have.

For now, I’m encouraged when I compare the exhortations to praying in the New Testament with Tertullian’s report of Christians in the immediate post-Apostolic period, and then note the congruence of both with Prayer Book praying. They all cohere in a way that makes me grateful I worship in an Anglican setting.


One response to “That Wasn’t Your Grandmother’s Prayer Meeting

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  1. The first photo should have been headlined “Prayer Meeting,” not “Prayer Meeing.”

    But, after I saw it, and reflected on such gatherings as I have attended over 50 years, I decided to leave “Meeing” there, as it — in the way Providence happens from time to time — actually captures something valid about the majority of those meetings.

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