A community leader prays aloud a series of petitions to God. The people complete each appeal by responding to it in unison.
The response might be a simple affirmation – Amen. It might be a plea for God’s attention – Lord, hear our prayer – or for intervention – Good Lord, deliver us. The response might be different for each petition, completing its thought:
Leader: We pray for all who govern and hold authority …
People: That there may be justice and peace on the earth.
The response might include a moment of silence. In all cases, the back-and-forth of petitions and communal response is what makes responsive prayer.
Age-Old Practice of Making Community
The practice of responsive prayer is ancient and common to many religions. The Amidah or “Eighteen Blessings,” the central prayer of the Jewish synagogue, pre-dates Christianity by about five centuries. It is prayed individually, and it is also prayed responsively whenever a minyan (ten or more worshippers) is present, with the congregation responding Amen to each blessing. Jesus would have prayed the Amidah at the temple, and some scholars have suggested that the Lord’s Prayer may be his distillation of its three main themes: praise, petitions, and thanksgiving.
Early Christian responsive prayers were used in public processions to beg for divine protection from natural disasters or aid for good crops, using the Latin response Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy upon us). Also called litanies, these prayers competed with and finally replaced earlier pagan processions and prayers that had filled the same social needs.
Responsive prayer is essentially social in nature. It draws people together to express their relationship to God as a community. When praying alone, my focus is often on my own need. Oh God, save me! In responsive prayer, the pronouns are always plural, and the petitions call for the welfare of the community and the world. Responsive prayer turns my attention away from myself, joins me with others, and draws me into the world.
After a strong start, the practice of responsive prayer in Catholic worship declined over the centuries as the role of the clergy expanded, drawing more of the liturgy away from the congregation to be spoken by the priest alone. The decline continued in the new liturgies of the Protestant Reformation: Protestant leanings toward the individual’s personal relationship with God and against fixed liturgy left little room for responsive prayer. The practice has made a comeback only in recent generations, as the laypeople’s role in worship reemerges.
Lifesavers and Suspense
In the Methodist church of my youth, we sang hymns at Sunday services and listened to scripture. Then at some point before the sermon, the minister said out loud a prayer that was both long (to my young ears) and, as far as I could tell, written by him. I usually blanked out during that time, or daydreamed, or paged through the hymnal for an especially bloody hymn to read, sucking on the lifesaver that had miraculously risen out of my mother’s purse. Ditto for the sermon. After the sermon, we sang another hymn, and then we were released.
Occasionally, maybe one Sunday in five, something different happened. The bulletin directed us to a number in the back of the hymnal – a big number, way up in the 500’s or 600’s – and we all stood for a responsive reading. The text was usually a Psalm or other passage of scripture. Lines read by the minister were interlaced with lines in bold to be read by us, the congregation. The back-and-forth rhythm filled me with suspense. What would he say next? How would we answer? I heard and read the words with an attention no sermon ever called forth. It took only a few encounters with responsive reading before I was searching the bulletin first thing every Sunday morning, hoping for a really big number.
So after I grew up and left church, then grew up some more and returned to church, I was happy to find responsive prayers in the Episcopal liturgy, both the relatively brief Prayers of the People and the majestic litanies for special services or holy days. And even happier to find clergy who encourage lay people like me to write new ones.
I love to bring ancient forms of liturgy to new life in contemporary language.
Language is a living thing, and the meaning of words evolves over time. Old meanings never completely go away. Instead, new meanings and connotations build up over that original little piece of grit like layers of pearl.
After a few centuries, familiar words of liturgy can take on a hard luster that obscures the sense they were originally meant to convey. I like returning to the grit of real life, using today’s words that shoot to the heart of the matter.
Beautiful, time-honored forms that carry a lively message in everyday, modern language. I hope you find that tug-and-pull as inspiring as I do.
Many Leaders, One Community
The responsive prayers on this web site are original. They’re written to be prayed in community. They can be prayed traditionally, with one leader saying the petitions and the people responding. Or, the role of leader can be shared. For example, when praying one of these prayers in a small group, each petition might be read by a different person around the circle, with the whole group saying the responses together. In a larger congregation, you might assign petitions to individuals as they arrive so that the appeals can be heard from all parts of the room. Again, the whole congregation responds together.
When I’m praying one of these prayers alone, I still try to see myself as part of a larger community, expressing to God our needs, desires, and intentions for each other and the world.
Prayer of the Faithful, Walter C. Huffman, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1986, 1992.
Commentary on the American Prayer Book, Marion J. Hatchett, The Seabury Press, New York, 1980.
The response “Lord, hear our prayer” is common to many prayers. The response “Good Lord, deliver us” is part of The Great Litany, found on page 148 of The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. The response “That there may be justice and peace on the earth” is from one of the Prayers of the People in the same book, page 387.
Christians can find a good introduction to the Jewish Amidah or Eighteen Blessings at http://www.hebrew4christians.com. For a more in-depth discussion of the history and practice of the Amidah, see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.