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House of Prayer?

praying in church
Travelling and at home, one of the differences between Roman Catholic and Anglican church buildings that has become a noticeable pattern to me is that if one goes into a Roman Catholic church building it would be very rare to find one where there isn’t someone praying; if one goes into an Anglican church building it would be very rare to find one where there is someone praying.

It is so predictable, if you were a betting person it could be something you could bet on prior to going into the building. “Let’s go into Our Lady, Star of the Sea – I bet we’ll find people praying in there.” “Let’s go into St Mary’s – I bet we won’t find anyone praying in there.”

OK – you are now going to debate with me, “what do you mean by prayer?” Fair point. If you want to score points, rather than think this through more deeply.

Go into an Anglican church building and you are likely to be presented with a brochure on the church building’s architecture, history, and its famous windows… Go into a Roman Catholic church building and there are brochures on prayer, confession, the sacraments…

OK – you are now going to point out that walking around, looking at the windows, while the organist practises the coming Sunday’s voluntary, can be a very prayerful experience. Fair point. If you want to continue scoring points.

I’m talking about people often spending half an hour or more say in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or praying their rosary, or other quiet, prayerful, contemplative disciplines. Not to mention weekday services – no prizes for guessing which denomination has the larger congregations.

OK – maybe Anglicans are more disciplined in their individual devotional life at home, you might point out? Committed to the Daily Office (a la Cranmer’s vision for a reformed church)… If our buildings are to be a house of prayer for only one hour in the 168 hours in a week – can we justify them?!…

Sure – I’ve visited exceptions – an empty Roman Catholic church building; an Anglican church building committed to being a house of prayer on weekdays, not just an hour a week, on Sundays. But they are precisely that: exceptions. Exceptions, that surprise me.

[Let’s not even get into, on this thread, church buildings only open one hour a week!]

I’m convinced that the future of the church lies with our life of prayer, our contemplative dimension, our relationship with God. Half a century ago the great theologian, Karl Rahner, said, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” That’s our future: a community of contemplatives – or no Christian community at all.

The point of this post is to get some reflection, some discussion going, about the place of prayer and contemplation, together and alone, and how we use our church buildings to encourage and facilitate that. What do you think?

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27 Responses to House of Prayer?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head: THE EUCHARIST. no matter what kind of belief Catholics have in the “Real Presence” in the Eucharist, when you enter a church with the light at the tabernacle you have a sense of “real Presence.” You are never praying alone; that could be the key as to the difference. They might not “get it” or fully understand “it” but some how, they feel “it” and prayer comes in that sacred space more easily.

    • I think that is such an important observation, Maria. Possibly related: the power of lighting a candle eg. before an icon – I see attempts to replicate this in some protestant churches, but just lighting a candle by a wall. It just does not appear to have the same connections. Blessings.

  2. It may be a theological distinction that leads to this. The Anglican tradition of a personal relationship with Christ allows complete freedom to discuss with Christ repentance and seek blessings upon friends etc… anywhere at any time whereas the RC’s have long placed legalistic barriers by way of an earthly chain of command in front of the faithful. That tradition may lead to people praying inside the church building but its built on a base of appalling things like indulgences that held the fearful flock captive.

    • I think, Brown, you are right that protestant individualism may be part of the dynamic at work here; it affects the understanding of church as merely there to support the individual’s journey, rather than church community being also of value (in the biblical sense). I also agree with your tense in the latter points – if these things had this effect in the past, they would not generally have this dynamic in the places I have visited. Blessings.

      • Bosco,
        I agree with your comment about individualism. Another aspect is liturgical. My parish church is idle all week with the exception of a Wednesday noon Eucharist. We don’t have the practice, tradition and HABIT of daily corporate liturgical prayer. (Iron, isn’t it that our prayer book is called the Book of COMMON Prayer) I know it is a resource issue for most places, but it is also a failure of imagination, particularly in that Morning and Evening Prayer do not require ordained leadership. There are ways.

        I have advocated frequently on our Worship Committee that we address the lack of liturgical worship opportunities during the week. It was gently suggested to me that when that blessed day finally arrives that I am fully retired, I might be the first volunteer to organize daily office. I’m game for that, and I know several folks in my parish who regularly pray either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer.

        Lou Poulain
        Sunnyvale CA USA

        • Thanks, Lou. The revival, renewal, and growth of praying Daily Prayer (“alone” and together) has been one of my passions – may it flourish. Blessings.

  3. Our Episcopal Cathedral’s chapel (in downtown Houston) is open daily, and we have three daily services there – Morning & Evening Prayer plus noon Communion. Being downtown, we have had a couple of scary vandalism/threat situations, but we have security on campus, and there is no intent to change the hours.

  4. One thing I miss about the loss of the Christchurch Cathedral (and my workplace in town) is being able to pop in for a few minutes of personal prayer during my lunch break. However recent public debate about the future of that building has focused mostly on the architecture. I think you have made a valid and thoughtful point.

    • Thanks, Claudia. I think you are right about that building – it was a place where there was a sense of prayer seeped into its stones. Blessings.

  5. I don’t go into many Anglican or Roman Catholic churches outside of mass times, but the two or three Anglican churches I do visit from time to time always have “the remains” of someone at prayer, in the form of burnt-out or burning votive candles. Since Anglicans don’t normally have a tradition of adoration of the blessed sacrament, I think the availability of votive candles is a crucial invitation to prayer in Anglican (or any) churches. Interestingly, I recently learned more of the importance of candles for people who are “no longer” Christian, but have some Christian “race memory”…..my daughter, visiting Notre Dame de Paris lit a candle there for her late grandparents yesterday, and on a recent TV program about a group who have set up a community-based funeral service, candles were a key element of the encouragement of prayerful participation in the funeral service. You have probably done a post on candles, and if so, it would be great for you to refer me/us to it .

  6. Good point. As a Roman Catholic convert I’ve had the same impression. Sometimes I go to pray with the Blessed Sacrament and when I get to church building usually people ask what am I doing. In my context It’s not even understood as possible that people can only come to church to pray.

    I think that the starting point will be having our churches OPEN. Usually Anglican churches are closed during the week. If you have the church doors open, people might feel called to pray. If you have them always closed, it would be more difficult to hear that calling. I would say.

    • Thanks, Luis. Yes, having church buildings open is something I have often thought about – and will blog on again. Blessings.

  7. Our large Angican church stands at the heart of this smallish market town. We try to keep the church open – at least from 10am to 4pm every day – with a notice up asking people to enter quietly if a service is in progress. Volunteers act as welcomers thoughout these periods and help visitors with any queries they have – often about the building, the windows etc – simply because it is an impressive building. The oldest part of the building is where we have votive candles always available and where people will fequently kneel to pray – or will take the opprtunity to ask (in person or in writing) for prayer for themselves or a loved one. It is a wonderful space for quiet reflection, for spiritual devotion and for seeking solace.

  8. Great to have you back blogging, Bosco. Your point about windows, architecture, etc., is extremely important. Edward Norman’s 2002 book “Secularisation” observed that the operators of many English churches (especially cathedrals) had made the (he thinks groundless) assumption that people will be drawn towards Christian faith by being taught about the historic buildings in which Christians worship. What this really accomplished, in his view, was a voluntary acquiescence to the prevailing secular view that Christian buildings are part of the “national heritage”. He points out that the same thing happened in Soviet Russia: historic churches were turned into museums, with plaques explaining the icons and architecture, so that modern Communists could appreciate a necessary, if primitive, prior phase of their country’s inexorable social development.

    But there’s another side to it. When I visited the Anglican cathedral in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a guide fell over himself explaining how all the carved wood and glass had been shipped over from England. Anglicanism was often very consciously an attempt to recreate “Englishness” in a foreign land. Here in Canada, while the Catholics were making saints among the First Nations, Anglicans were working towards becoming the legally Established Church of the new colonies! (There are important and admirable exceptions to that rule.) So the church building, for us, became as much about cultural preservation as spiritual connection.

    I wish our chapel at the college where I teach were more of a house of prayer: part of the problem is that, wonderful as its Giles Gilbert Scott perpendicular gothic revival architecture is, it’s just too darned hot in a Toronto summer!

  9. I agree with your observation, Fr Bosco. I think part of it has to do with Anglican behaviour before services, and liturgical posture during services.

    Once people would have knelt and quietly prayed before services, or even during them if they arrived a little late, but nowadays they just gasbag to their neighbours, even in parishes that you’d ‘think would know better’.

    Anyone wanting to prepare themselves in prayer for the Eucharist is likely to be bombarded by neighbours who find loud discussion of dear old Myrtle’s haemorrhoid operation a source of endless fascination.
    Depressingly, that happens every week in my parish.

    In another parish close by that prides itself on its bells and smells (well, to be honest, more its lace, gin and backbiting) I’ve experienced a parishioner from that church suddenly standing in the aisle next to me shouting to the guy next to me in the pews when I was kneeling in prayer at just as the voluntary began after the final hymn at the end of Evensong and Benediction. The organist wouldn’t have even finished the first line of his music before this fellow’s verbal diarrhoea gushed out. I was obviously praying, but that means nothing to Anglicans, it seems.

    At the same parish I’ve experienced a fairly large man in his 30s climbing over 3-4 pews to insert himself between me and a friend of his as I was kneeling in prayer before mass one day. There really wasn’t enough space and, tiresomely, he blabbed on to his mate loudly. Again, I was obviously praying, but that means nothing to Anglicans, it seems.

    Another problem is the rubrics that encourage the able-bodied to sit during prayer rather than kneel or stand seem, to me at least, to have got us to the point where even churchgoers will feel that prayer is something done by ‘those up the front’. Of course the seated make it virtually impossible for those behind them to kneel which just adds to the problem.

    Consequently, it seems to me that many people feel no need to engage in any real way with personal or corporate prayer on a Sunday, let alone during the week.

    All very sad, I think.

    • Robert, I have a niggling feeling that you are echoing my experience that I expressed in an earlier post. If I find it – I’ll add it as a link to this comment. If church is not about the numinous, about the contemplative, about God, I, for one, have no interest in it. And I think younger people find their needs for such interactions satisfied by facebook – they don’t need the church for such encounters. Blessings.

    • Brilliant, St Chrysostoms! On this site please use your ordinary name – unless, of course, you are St Chrysostom commenting, in which case an exclusive 21st century interview is on the cards… Blessings.

          • A solid knowledge of church history and a large dollop of imagination. (Imagination I can do but lack the historical knowledge).
            Perhaps imagine a time machine that could bring the historical figure forward into the 21st century to observe some aspect of 21st century life that their teachings could relate to, then imagine their responses in a dialogue format.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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