Public prayers: liturgical or free...

In preparation for future course lectures, I’ve been reading and taking notes on the published doctoral dissertation of Horton Davies on The Worship of the English Puritans (reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria). One of the chapters compares the set forms of prayer used by the Anglicans with the extemporary prayers used by the Puritans.

Here is a summary of the arguments used by the Puritans against set forms of prayer:

  1. Set forms of prayer deny ministers and people of the gift of prayer. The Christian hears a prayer rather than being encouraged to pray on his own. Set prayers hindered the spiritual growth of the minister and his people.
  2. Set forms of prayer cannot meet the needs of all congregations and all occasions. What happens if the nation is going through famine or is at war, or if an elder has died during the previous week. How do set forms of prayer help with different situations? Set forms are too impersonal. Free prayer is personal.  
  3. When set forms of prayer are prescribed, they teach (perhaps without intention) that liturgical prayer is the only way to worship. Some Puritans occasionally used set prayers, but they strongly resisted the imposition of the Prayer Book on everyone for all worship. The Puritans said we may only worship God as He has told us to worship Him in His word and this did not include set forms of prayers.
  4. Set forms of prayer produce hypocrisy. People give lip service in worship and their hearts may be far from God.
  5. The requirement of set forms of prayer has led to persecution of those who refuse to go along.

Here are some of the arguments with which Anglicans countered and used against free or extemporary prayer:

  1. Free prayer is for the intellectually lazy. It is better to think on what is said, rather than “shooting from the hip.”
  2. Free prayer tends to ostentation rather than edification. They often glorify the one praying rather than the One to whom we pray.
  3. The people cannot give their immediate assent to free prayers until they have examined them.
  4. Not all ministers are able to pray freely in public.

At root, the two forms of praying show different conceptions of the Church. Liturgical prayer stresses the corporate nature of the body and has the parish as its background. Free prayer stresses the familial nature of the church and has the remnant as its focus.

These are the arguments mentioned by Davies. How do you evaluate these arguments?

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. He currently lives in Lusaka, Zambia with his wife, Terri, and serves as the dean of the Seminary at the African Christian University. He is a career missionary with Mission to The World in Zambia.


Oy vey! So much to say, so little space (or standing) to say it.

I had hoped you would comment, Father Bill.

I came to liturgical prayer quite late in the piece, and out of a Pentecostal background which had free prayer down to a fine or often not-so-fine art. Liturgical prayer has, as a result, really stuck with me; to the point that there are some (such as the 'Collect for purity') I have used in non-liturgical settings, and to some effect. There are some examples of 'set prayers' and liturgy which are sheer genius.

To answer your question, no one form of prayer can do everything you need prayer for, and as a result: both sets of criticisms strike me as valid. Even the people who love free prayer still know to pray the Lord's Prayer; even the proponents of set prayers know that sometimes one needs to pray from the heart, as it were.


I will comment at length, but to you in private.

I wasn't kidding. The issues -- nay, the theological commitments -- embedded in the summary of Davies' arguments of the English Puritans against set prayers -- are rooted only circumstantially in the Puritans' conception of the Church (just curious: is this Davies' idea or yours?). Instead, the English Puritans evince a more than proto-gnosticism, an error concerning the nature and function of spirituality that goes back to the times of the Apostles, and which finds concrete expression in the convictions concerning public prayer which Davies summarizes (as you've referred to him; I've not read his dissertation).

A developed thesis regarding gnosticism as it appears within the English Reformation is found in Phillip J. Lee's Against the Protestant Gnostics in which he traces the gnostic notions of spirituality from the times of the Apostles, through the Roman church up to the time of the Reformation, in the Magisterial Reformers, especially Calvin and his Puritan disciples in the English Reformation, on to North American Protestantism, especially in its Reformed expressions. You can get a good idea of how he develops his ideas by examining the Table of Contents at Amazon's listing for this book (using the "Look Inside" feature of the Amazon listing).

Lee draws a straight line from the gnosticism of the Puritans in the English Reformation to the radicalized narcissism and individualism of modern North American Christianity (whether evangelical or liberal). I'd put it more prosaically -- a straight line from the hostility toward set prayers that Davies describes on to the endless and mindless choruses that drench evangelical worship services every time they meet for "worship."

I'd wager that 99 percent of Baylyblog's readers below the age of 40 know nothing else! And,of course, in Reformed climes the Puritans are held in esteem that admits no criticism. Consequently, I do not expect many in Reformed climes to grant me much in the way of credibility were I to expound a critique of the Puritans' arguments against set prayers which you cite from Davies!

I greatly value the common cause I have with the audience of Baylyblog on some critical issues where Protestant orthodoxy contends with the spirit of this age. The use (or rejection) of set prayers does not lie within that common ground.

However, David, your post here succinctly pulls together a summary of arguments for and against the use of set prayers. I'm going to prepare a detailed interaction with both sets of arguments so I can supply it to new members of St. Athanasius parish, all of whom come to set prayers with no experience of them, nor any understanding of how and why they are both Biblical and spiritually healthful in the lives as well as the worship of Christians. When it's complete (and, I promise it won't be book length!) I'll send it along to you privately.

One 'plus' to liturgical prayers is that everyone can pray together for and about the subject at hand whether it be intercession, praise, repentance, etc.

Most reformed churches have no place for individual singing--which is a form of prayer in itself. Generally, everyone sings (prays) together.

Also, in some liturgies, there is a time for corporate Confession of Sin (which is a prayer) and corporate Profession of Faith (which is held in common).

This of course doesn't negate having within a set liturgy, a time for extemporary prayer.

So, thankfully, it doesn't have to be an either/or situation.

I think there is truth each side can learn from the others points. Excluded middle? I'm from a free-prayer background and it is curious and freeing thought to think that I can also come with a pre-written prayer. Many free-prayer folk would think that is unspiritual. But there has got to be much freedom for free-prayer also. Acts has lots of free-prayer in it. And I guess the Lord's prayer is a liturgical prayer, unless you read it as a general outline.

Henry, I grew up in a free prayer church so I know a lot about ostentation in prayer. And I know about people praying "at" you, or giving the group a lecture in the guise of prayer. I've also seen how free prayer sooner or later falls into set patterns. So I regard the beauty and orthodoxy of prayers from the Book of Common prayer as a treasure that have aided and helped my prayer life.

Let me give some illustrations of how free prayer or worship usually falls into a set pattern. The prayers of the pastor in the church in which I grew up often included not only the same themes but oftentimes the same words. I could almost tell what he was going to say before he said it.

I also remember a charismatic prayer group that came out of that church. The emphasis was on the freedom of the Spirit. However, there was a set pattern with only minor variations to the free worship. Worship song after worship song after worship song, building to a crescendo of individuals praying all at the same time, some in English, some in "tongues," and then it would quiet down, and they'd sing another song, and then came the sermon (teaching).

Lots of kids who grow up in a free prayer atmosphere find great enjoyment and release in set forms of prayer. Maybe this is why kids who grew up Baptist often become Presbyterians. And kids who grow up Presbyterian often become Anglicans or Lutherans. And those who grow up Anglican sometimes become Roman Catholic.

Father Bill, I'm summarising Davies here. I'm not sure where his own commitments were at this time. He was pastoring a church in England at the time (late 1940s). Later he taught at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. He's likely retired now.

I intended this post to stimulate discussion. So what I wrote was a summary to prime the pump. Clearnote is training worship leaders and this is a vital area, so I hope Jody and Phil and others will jump in here.

As you can see from my comment above, I really value many of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Many Puritans did also and so combined free prayer with set forms of prayer in their worship.

I grew up in a free prayer background but have come to find beauty in the liturgical prayers. I pray the set prayers when I cannot form my own, which is quite often.
I have noticed that many of the free prayers offered by church leaders end up being instructional - aimed to the congregation - rather than worshipful. In fact, I find it quite distracting.
I now attend a church that utilizes both.

Thanks David that is helpful. And 'Freedom of the Spirit' is often used as a guise for indulging our wishes.

Could you recommend a good book of prayers. Is Valley of Vision a good one or would you say the Book of Common Prayer would be better? And does the version matter? I don't remember the facts of the 1662 Great Ejection but I thought it had something to do with that.

Thank you David for this good summary.

I'll just add that the Puritan arguments need to be understood in the stark either/or context of the Act(s) of Uniformity. Haven't gotten the sense from reading them that the Puritans were opposed necessarily to either prepared prayers, or corporate recitations (see James Bannerman's treatment of set prayers in the Church of Christ where he makes this clear). But rather that they objected to being forced by the crown to adhere to forms that left little or no room for exercising gifts of extemporaneous prayer and pastoral judgment. Where this doesn't hold true rhetorically, I chalk it up to the tendency all of us have to overstate our case in the heat of controversy.


Henry, you asked David this, but let me recommend to you Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer, in which he strings together Scriptural phrases into longer prayers on various topics. An invaluable resource. Reading a page or two a day would go a long way to making our prayers more biblical. And Lig Duncan has made it easy for you by putting the whole thing online and for free download in various Scriptural translations here:

I'm also currently working through Rev. Stephen C. Magee's A Book of Prayers: A Prayer for Every Chapter of the Bible, which is poorly published, but thoughtfully composed:

And yes, Valley of Vision is great devotionally, though a little overly poetical as a model for public prayer. Same issue with Hughes Oliphant Old's Leading in Prayer. The artifice of these prayers is just too noticeable to be useful to those wanting to learn how to lead effectively in public. Here Matthew Henry is best.

>I greatly value the common cause I have with the audience of Baylyblog on some critical issues where Protestant orthodoxy contends with the spirit of this age. The use (or rejection) of set prayers does not lie within that common ground.

Dear Fr. Bill,

We have more in common than you'll allow, I think. None of us, so far as I know, rejects altogether the use of set prayers. In fact, Clearnote Bloomington is reciting John Knox's Confession of Sin as a congregation tomorrow. Lord willing.


The classic Anglican response to the Puritans is Hooker's book V. He shows in point after point that BCP liturgical prayer and worship is fully biblical, and that the Puritan objections lack any substance. I cannot summarize him here, but here are a few things to ponder. Regarding set prayer, Jesus said, "When you pray, say, Our Father …", thus the lord gave us a set prayer and commanded us to use it. In principle, then, set prayer has Christ's imprimatur.

Essentially the Puritan objections boil down the to the idea that the sermon is the whole point of a service, so, "No sermon no service". All else, such as set prayers, numerous Bible readings, confession of sin and absolution, is just prelude to the main thing - the sermon. Ring any bells?

And yet, God commands us to corporately confess our sins, to corporately listen to the scripture read out loud (which is to listen to sermons directly from the prophets, the apostles and our Lord himself), to corporately praise God, to corporately pray for certain specific things such as rulers etc., and to participate in the sacraments. Sermons are good, but if you as a group do all the things listed without one, you have worshipped God according to his word, and lacked nothing.

The reality is that God has given very few good preachers to his church, scarcely one in a county according to Bishop Jewel, so the BCP is a pastoral response to a national reality. It delivers a godly church service in the absence of good preachers, which is the usual situation, and fufills all of God's requirements of us. The Book of Homilies even provides good sermons to be read out loud to the people by the clergy, so that we do not have to hear the claptrap that passes for sermons in most places.

Funny that Mr. DuBarry should bring up the Homilies. Driving weather was dangerous here today so church was cancelled. We're having home church in half an hour and I'm planning to read from the first of the homilies for a sermon--A FRVITFVLL EXHORTATION TO the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture.

Dear Roger,

Whether these are Hooker's arguments, yours, or both, I can't tell. Regardless, they are mischaracterizations of what the Puritans believed (and we believe) about Lord's Day worship.

First, though some Puritans (more accurately, Separatists) questioned the wisdom of reciting the Lord's Prayer in worship, most of them held that it should enjoy a regular place in the liturgy, as it does in ours. So, that argument is a straw man.

Second, to acknowledge one element as primary—i.e. preaching the Word, which Scripture gives first place, not we (see Romans 10:14; 1Corinthians 1:7; James 1:21; etc.)—is not to relegate the other elements of biblical worship to the dustbin of irrelevancy, as you've suggested with that little phrase "just prelude." This is a uniquely modern mistake, I think, insisting that all concepts in a particular set be equal, for fear that one if elevated invalidates the rest. This is the fallacy at the heart of egalitarianism.

The truth is there is always a hierarchy of place in any coherent set, which exists for the benefit of all the parts. Such is the case with preaching in worship, no less than officers in the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28), and husbands in marriage (Ephesians 5:23). Preaching is first in rank in worship, which in God's terms always means first in service. Preaching serves the praying, the praising, the reading, and the eating, like a husband serves His wife, or a police officer his city. Preaching calls all to account, invigorates all, and binds all together in worship. Worship without preaching soon rots on the vine.

Again, this does not render prayer, praise, and sacrament irrelevant. On the contrary, these are each extremely significant. But their significance is derivative. Remove preaching—which is the Spirit's primary means of communicating Christ (not the only, but the primary)—these other elements soon become empty ritual. But with preaching as the head, directing and invigorating, each of these elements takes its place around a happy table.

Lastly, as for Bishop Jewel's assertion that God has been niggardly in His distribution of preachers (Scarcely one in a country? Come on!), I say bunk and double bunk. We've got more than several here in Bloomington. I've met many others elsewhere. That there are periods when the state of preaching is generally poor, I grant you. The early English Reformation was apparently one such time. The question is how to go about mending such a situation. The Establishment men of 16th Century England thought it best to publish a skilled sermonizer's words to be read by others from a book. The Puritans, who I think Jewell wrongly deprecated with his comments, thought it best to focus on improving the training of ministers, seeing the homilies and collects as a stop-gap measure at best. The contemporary Evangelical solution is to video cast "effective communicators" to other congregations it calls satellite campuses. Both neglect the duty to train up preachers in favor of an immediate result. It's sad to me that the Puritans weren't better listened to in their day, as their's seems easily the wiser course. It's the one we're plotting here with Clearnote Pastors College, anyway.


Dear Jody

I am sorry that you are unhappy with my post. The article asked for a response. and I gave some of the classic responses from a man who knew the Puritan objections to the BCP, and who dedicated lots of time to a detailed reply in a book. I took the time to struggle through his dense prose style to make my own summary, and offered a few thoughts from that.

I know that many Presbyterians recite the Lord's Prayer and read out the ten Commandments, following a loose form of liturgy. One of the best services I ever attended was a Dutch Reformed Communion. However, I am sure that you will agree that there are many people who think that if a prayer is not extempore it is not from the heart. The fact that the Lord himself gave us a prepared prayer shows that prepared prayer is completely OK to God in principle.

The idea of "no sermon no service" was a central Puritan objection to the BCP, which they thought "broke men's wits" with over-long readings from the Bible, and too many prayers, so that when the time came for the sermon they were catatonic.

By "a sermon" they excluded the reading of scripture, or a sermon from a book, as was common throughout Europe at the time. I have a collection of Luther's sermons in two volumes, intended to be read out loud as "the sermon" in Lutheran churches.

Hooker points out that the reading of scripture in the BCP is in itself sermonising, showing that Ephesians, for example, was commanded to be read out loud in the churches. More than that, it is inspired preaching in the true sense of the word, because we are hearing preaching from the prophets, apostles, and the Lord himself, IN PERSON. Thus hearing scripture read out is BETTER than "a sermon". Even so, a sermon is a good thing, and Hooker wished that every congregation could have a good preacher, but reality dictated otherwise. The English Church needed ten thousand clergy, and there was no way to train or retrain that many men to be good speakers. BTW Jewel said scarcely one good preacher in a county, not countRy. :)

So then, a congregation working through the BCP every Sunday, who lacked a clergyman, would get inspired preaching in the form of scripture read out loud, as well as praying and praising in words that conform to scripture, thus excluding the possibility of bad practice displeasing to God.

Therefore the Puritan objections to a prepared liturgy were entirely without substance, since the BCP fulfilled all the commands of God regarding public worship, without transgressing in any way, and at the same time providing a fully biblical and edifying experience. It saved the congregation from the trial of a bad preacher, or a good speaker who did not know the Bible well. In fact, it made the congregation fully self-sufficient in principle, in a situation where there was often no clergyman, or a useless one.

I agree with the Puritans on this one and have no time for set prayers/liturgy. And the Lord's Prayer is not an example of a set prayer, but gives a general outline for free prayer. Those fond of set prayers should perhaps consider how close this is to the practice of Islam. Muslims need set prayers because they don't know God and have no personal relationship with Him. However, if we as Christians wouldn't speak to our human fathers in repetitious language, how is it honoring to speak to our Heavenly Father in this way?


I agree with the Anglicans (especially Hooker as summarized by our friend Roger) on this one and have little time for free prayers in the liturgy. And the Lord's Prayer is not only an example of a set prayer, but it gives a general outline for other set prayers (as do many examples in the Psalter). Those fond of free prayers should perhaps consider how close this is to the practice of Hinduism. Hindus need to emote through free prayers because they don't know God and have no personal relationship with Him. However, if we as Christians wouldn't speak off the cuff to judges, bank loan officers, or some other man who held our future in his hands, how is it honoring to speak “from the hip” to our Heavenly Father in this way?

Hi Roger. Several comments relative to yours.

"That many people think that set forms are not from the heart." No disagreement from Jody and I here. Many people do think this way and Jody and I think they are wrong. I can remember Garrison Keillor jesting that read prayers were unmanly. Many of the Puritans agree with us. One thing that is clear in the book by Davies is that there were some Puritans who mixed set forms with free prayer.

"That the Lord's Prayer shows that set forms of prayer are fine." Some Puritans disagreed and said that the Lord's Prayer gave the pattern for prayer, but did not intend it to be simply repeated.

I'm sure you'll understand if I don't comment when you speak of Puritans "breaking men's wits" and getting folk into a "catatonic state." We have long sermons over here in Zambia and I've not gone catatonic yet. Never saw anyone with their wits broken, either. I'm afraid you've got a straw man there.

"That hearing Scripture read is better than a sermon." If you think this, well, we really do disagree. I'm very grateful for regular Scripture reading. Clearnote Church does it and our Baptist church over here is just past halfway through Deuteronomy just now. A chapter a week, morning and evening. "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13). There's a difference between reading and teaching.

"That Puritan objections to a prepared liturgy are entirely without substance." They never objected to a prepared liturgy, just to the Anglican one. They came up with their own prepared liturgies so how could they be against them? They disagreed with the enforcement of the BCP on everyone and they disagreed with certain parts of it.

Thanks also for correcting Jody and me for our misreading "country" instead of "county." I misread it also.

With gratitude for your thoughtful response, David

It seems to me that the Scriptures feature set prayers like the Psalms and the Lord's Prayer, and also feature many praying rather extemporaneously. And so I wonder; do we "need" to choose one or the other? Personally, having grown up Methodist and being a Baptist now, I've seen the strengths and weaknesses of both up close and personal. Maybe we should ask God about the matter!

Hello David

May I say that although I use the BCP 1662 in modern English all the time, that I have no objection in principle to a less liturgical form of public worship, such as the Presbyterian one.

A few misreadings on your part continue ... :) Apologies for any caused by the brevity of my replies or any shortcomings.

The Puritans complained that it was the BCP that "broke men's wits" by not leaving enough time for a long sermon, not the Puritan "Long sermon with a short prelude".

The point about the Lord's Prayer is that the Lord said "Say, our Father...", which is a command. This is the Luke version I think, without checking. That makes it mandatory to say the prayer as is, while leaving room for it to also be a pattern.

The point about reading scripture is not primarily that it is better than a sermon, although it is because it is the pure word of God and a sermon may not be, but that scripture IS sermon. The point is made against those who think that a clergyman's sermon is better than the reading of the Bible. It answers the objection that the poor congregants listening to Morning Prayer are missing out on a sermon by pointing out that the many Bible readings set down in the tables are in fact sermons, and sermons of the purest kind.

BTW are you Afrikaans?

*smiles* Well Fr. Bill, the disciples asked the Lord about prayer in response to seeing him praying Luke 11:1). Unless we're convinced that Christ consistently used set prayers, then the Lord's Prayer shouldn’t be considered an example of a set prayer. I have a hard time believing that the Lord continued all night (Luke 6:12) using set prayers – especially when there were serious and specific needs to pray about regarding the choice of the disciples! And did Christ use set prayers in John 17 or in the garden of Gethsemane? Or were set prayers used at Pentecost - “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer...And they prayed and said, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen” Acts 1:14,24?

On the other hand, set prayers are the common practice of Romanism, Islam, apostate Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism – have I left a major false religion out? And I’m surprised you use Hinduism as an example of free prayer given it has a long has a long history of “chanting mantras.”

I think as Christians we should rejoice in the freedom of knowing God (John 17:3) and having the ability to converse with God in a personal way with “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings.” And if it’s dishonoring to speak “from the hip,” as you put it, then we condemn Christ - “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” – and Paul for teaching that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”?

Well, lots of fine comments are coming out now and I'm grateful. This is yet another example of what Tim has often said: Many times, the comments are much better than the post. My post was vegetables and the meat and potatoes are coming in the comments.

Let me make a few comments here that may not yet be obvious. (1) There were differences among the Puritans and Davies makes that clear. Some allowed only extemporary prayers. Some had both kinds. We should follow the example of those Puritans who had both free and set forms of prayer. (2) The Puritans and the Anglicans, at least some of them, listened to each other and modified things accordingly. (3) Scripture does contain some set forms and we should use them (the Lord's Prayer, the Aaronic blessing, etc.) and they set the precedent that set forms can be used in public prayer, even the non-inspired ones from the BCP or in other liturgies. (4) But there are also plenty of examples of free prayer in Scripture and JJ has pointed out several of them. Thus, we need not shun free prayers. (5) However, those who engage in free prayers should follow (at least some of) their Puritan forefathers and engage in preparation for their free prayers. (6) Those who grew up in a free prayer environment, read through the prayers found in such places as the BCP. They will help you pray and give shape and orthodoxy to your free prayers. Many of us older Christians must frequently admit, that often we don't know how to pray. Sometimes we will find our deepest longings and yearnings in prayers that have been prayed by the church for years.

1 John 5:14-15 is very important. It commands us to pray according to God's will. How do we do that? Well, Scripture has told us many things that are the will of God for the believer. So pray for those things, in private and in public. Many believers have often urged us to plead the promises of God, and give Him no rest.

Very helpful. Let's have more of this sort of exchange.


Thanks for the recommendations Jody, I plan to get some of this material.

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