How should we pray together?
Some comments regarding "Guidelines for Common Prayer"
Fr. Dr. K. M. George
Worship and prayer
It is certainly useful to make a distinction between 'worship' and 'prayer', as was suggested at the Cairo meeting of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches (WCC) in November 2000, since these words are sometimes interchangeably used in current practice. It might also be helpful if a distinction is made between sacramental worship and common prayer.
The Orthodox Tradition makes some basic distinctions in the matter of "prayer". It distinguishes between sacramental liturgy or worship, canonical Prayer of the Hours, and personal prayer and devotional practices. An example of the first is the Holy Eucharistic celebration of the community. Other sacramental celebrations derive their meaning from the Eucharist. An example of the second is morning and evening prayers conducted in parish churches, monasteries and seminaries. Shortened forms are used in family prayers in certain places. And personal prayer and devotional practices may draw from a broad range of canonical prayers, spiritual writings of the Fathers, and various practices like, for example, the "Jesus Prayer".
The Common Prayer in current "ecumenical settings" may be loosely considered along with canonical Prayer of the Hours, because
* the Prayer of the Hours is non-"sacramental" in the technical sense (in a theological sense, sacrament implies a far broader spectrum);
* though it follows some liturgical principles in its ordo, it is more flexible than sacramental liturgy;
* it is public common prayer, and there is no theological reason why anyone who is willing to participate in this form of prayer should be excluded;
* it does not necessarily require an ordained person, since lay communities can use this prayer;
* it is used by women, as practised in women's monasteries in some churches.
Ecumenical Prayer is something relatively new for our churches. The idea probably arose with the formation of the WCC. In the physical realm, our churches have coped with the "new" in technology -from microphones to internet in the communication of the gospel. But how do we deal with a new spiritual question related to our ultimate goal of visible unity?
The answer is that we may deal with the "new" challenge of common prayer on the basis of the principles of liturgical wisdom received from the Christian Tradition. From an Orthodox perspective, I would consider the following as basic elements in any common prayer:
* doxology or glorification of the Triune mystery of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one true God"
* the Lord's Prayer as taught by Christ
* the gospel reading
* the confession of faith, preferably the Nicene Creed
* the intercessory prayer, or Litany, bearing in mind the context of our life today
* the commemoration of the saints and martyrs, or "the cloud of witnesses"
* benediction using one of the biblical expressions of blessing, preferably the N.T. Trinitarian blessing.
Symbols are a must in any prayer or worship, since words communicate only partially and inadequately. Cross, candles, incense, vestments, colours are all traditional symbols in common prayer.
Sobriety and general acceptance should be the guiding principles. For example, the cross is a unique symbol communicating the mystery of God's incarnation and our salvation. The liturgical books often call it "the tree" and tell us that "Jesus was hanged on a tree". From created nature to the tree of life, from Jacob's ladder to the axis mundi, this unique cross-tree symbolizes the personal and cosmic dimensions of our Christian faith and salvation. Suppose that some eco-cosmic-enthusiasts, while disregarding this traditional symbol of the cross, uproot a whole young tree and bring it into the chapel for worship (as has happened in some places). This would violate the principles of ecology, sobriety and general acceptance, and embarrass a lot of people! Yet we should be open to new symbols as our contexts are constantly changing.
The common prayer par excellence
The common prayer par excellence is nothing other than the Lord's Prayer. The beauty and universality of this prayer, taught by Christ, is unparalleled. I have seen Hindus and Muslims praying it together with Christians, without necessarily subscribing to the Christian doctrines. Does any Christian have the right to exclude them from the prayer our Lord gave to humanity?
It further illustrates a principle that Christian prayer is for all and on behalf of all. A church which prays "with the sun and the moon and the stars, with the earth and the oceans, with the angels and archangels, with the Seraphim and Cherubim..." (Syriac St. James Liturgy) can only pray inclusively.
Any elaboration of common prayer should take the Lord's Prayer as its principle. One should also be aware of certain groups who manipulate occasions of ecumenical prayer in order to cater to their sectarian agendas. This sort of manipulation may be the reason for a strong negative reaction to common prayer in some circles.
Father Kondothra M. George is a lecturer at the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kottayam Kerala, India. He is an ordained minister of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kottayam. He was a member of the faculty of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, outside Geneva, from 1989-94, has been a member of the WCC Central Committee since 1998, and is moderator of the Programme Committee of the WCC Central Committee.