Public prayers: liturgical or free...

Error message

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. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.