For most of the congregation, a service of Christian worship can be as passive an experience as you wish: no one will stop you if you want to sit at the back of the nave and watch the elements of the service unfold as if at the theatre. Most of us have felt at one time or another that this is all we want or are able to contribute. However, the hope is that you will eventually want to play a more active part. Some people are willing to do anything that does not involve ‘performing’ in public and, as we have explored in previous posts, may be coaxed into, say, reading the lesson. But others may be ready to come further up and further in by, for example, leading intercessions.
One reason for the widespread reluctance to lead intercessions may be the lack of training generally available – with its concomitant risk of falling flat on one’s face. Anecdotes abound – in my own case, I was asked by the ‘Revd Laissez Faire’ to lead the prayers of the people at Matins. When I asked for advice, he told me to ‘ask Deirdre’, an old hand with whom I would be alternating. She told me to cut down on the prayers for the royal family – for example, unless Mrs ‘Loyally Royal’ happened to be in church that morning, I need only offer the prayer for the Queen, which I could bring to a halt about half way through at walk in thy way. There was no need to go on to pray that Her Majesty might be endued with heavenly gifts, health, wealth, strength or everlasting joy and felicity. Though I thought this injunction overly Cromwellian, I did as I was told. A few days later the Revd Laissez Faire rang me in I thought somewhat unholy glee to say that there had been a complaint about ‘my’ prayers at the PCC meeting for being too hidebound: in future I should model myself on the forms of intercessions used at the other (non-BCP) services. Though he made it sound so, I knew that it was not really my fault: a change of intercessor had simply made people realise that they wanted to move on.
I tried the Church of England website. Even today, though it contains some topical prayers which may be usefully incorporated, it takes a protracted treasure hunt to find any help for the stage before that: what should we pray about, how long for and any prescribed order.The following is offered under Notes:
Intercessions: These should normally be broadly based, expressing a concern for the whole of God’s world and the ministry of the whole Church. Nevertheless, where occasion demands, they may be focused on more particular and local needs. Where another service follows immediately, they may be brief.
Feeling as if I had sought for bread and been offered only stones, I set off for the cathedral bookshop where I found half a dozen books which seemed to deal with the subject. I read them in mounting despair: although they did offer some general help which was useful, most of the ideas offered seemed outlandish in the context of a small rural parish church with an extremely conservative congregation. There is a self-help website set up in March 2011 by Hilary Murray, who says: ‘When trying to write some intercessions for a local church service, I was astounded by the lack of help and inspiration found on the internet. I decided that something had to be done’.
Actually, it turns out that there is, after all, balm in Gilead, but it took me many years and the fortuitous purchase of ‘New Patterns for Worship‘ to find it. The patterns followed by four different sorts of churches are described: St Ann’s, St Bartholomew’s, St Christopher’s and (immediately recognisable!) St Dodo’s:
At St Dodo’s, the person leading the intercessions says ‘Let us pray’, but hasn’t found the right text, so we hear the pages of ‘New Patterns for Worship’ turning during the ensuing silence. He begins the responsive intercession for Creation, which unfortunately fits neither the readings nor the mood of the congregation. He forgets to rehearse the response at the start and so has to stop at the first break and say ‘When I say … you should say …’ in a voice which implies that the congregation should have known this all along. He keeps switching between addressing God and addressing the congregation throughout the prayers: ‘We really ought to pray for Ann (‘Who is she?’ half the congregation wonder) especially today because …’ – and more of his views of the circumstances of members of the community follow.
This post is by way of an introduction: next time I will offer some practical advice distilled from an increasingly large library and ten years of experience. This is certainly above the pay grade of a humble lay worship leader and with any luck will attract flak from all sides. We can then try and move to a form of advice acceptable to the Church in general (thesis, antithesis, synthesis anyone?) Of course, it would be even more welcome if you short-circuited this process by offering your advice right now, which we can then incorporate…
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The illustration is ‘Link for All’ in the metaphor series by Slavoljub Pantelic, via Shutterstock