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Prayerful Priests?

prayingpriest

One of the sadder moments for me at the recent diocesan synod was communion time at the synod Eucharist. While I and others were going to receive communion, clusters of people, particularly clergy, were sitting around and chatting.

We regularly see complaints about the Sign of Peace interrupting worship and degenerating to a catch-up time. I don’t know what these discussions during communion were about; strategising? gossiping? discomfort with silence?…

The irony is sadly underscored because exactly a year ago the bishop called on the diocese to have a year of prayer and study. There has been a lot of study of prayer…

There is always the danger that studying about prayer substitutes for praying.

There has been a lot of comment and affirmation (publicly and more privately) of my recent claim for priestly formation:

I am convinced that along with the commitment to academic contemporary theological scholarship there needs to be a profound commitment to the contemplative life.

I have always found it surprising that our church went to all the trouble of the twice-round procedure (General Synod, all diocesan synods, General Synod again) to remove the rule that clergy pray the daily office! Rather than leave it as an ideal (embodied in a rule which if you didn’t follow then the bishop wouldn’t take your licence from you) our church felt it important to put all this energy into removing the norm.

The diocesan synod was dealing with important issues: the future of our diocese (which includes possible job-losses for those at that synod meeting), the nature of marriage… If one could not just be contemplatively present to God at communion time, could one not have been interceding about the issues, people, and for those present?…

Unfortunately, it was noticeable that those chatting during communion were part of the tribe that seems to me to be struggling for self-identifiers. With opposition to such things as vestments, wafer bread, candles, and the mixed chalice being now so two-centuries ago, identification with this tribe seems to focus on homosexuality, penal substitution, and an overt nonchalance about the Eucharist and Eucharistic elements. This nonchalance appears to be seeping into the time of receiving communion itself. If silence, intercession, and being in God’s presence is a struggle, might they not refrain from distracting the rest of us by spending their time in the mental agility required in the exercise of remembering the death of Christ.

Click the link for some other posts around
contemplative leadership
forming contemplative leadership
and a spiritual year as part of formation for ordination.

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32 thoughts on “Prayerful Priests?”

  1. Way back when I was a youngster preparing for my fist communion, I was taught the importance of prayer and reflection the night before Eucharist, and again to spend some time immediately before the service sitting in prayer.

    Even though I currently attend a contemporary denomination, I still make this my practice.

    Is this still taught to young people in the Anglican Church? (Or judging from the context of your comments – the clergy?)

    1. Thanks, Claudia. I can only speak of my own ministry with young people in which silence for prayer, meditation, and reflection, both taught and practiced, is significant. Blessings.

  2. Bosco
    I continue to thank God for your articulating exactly what i have been thinking, seeing and feeling.
    I am like you terribly saddened at the lack of thoughtfulness, love and consideration by those who chat and talk. they seem oblivious to their history and to others body language.
    I shall not miss this when we depart next year for the african anglican church.
    Its a hard journey for you and others who appreciate the solemness us as a body being present before Almighty God.
    I like Pauls phrase about working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
    Shalom

  3. Mike Greenslade

    Thanks Bosco. Those are helpful observations. I never really understood or appreciated the value of collective silent prayer until I was reluctantly dragged to Taize. It is something I have learnt to treasure, but recognise my own inclination in the past to ‘fill the empty spaces’ that I didn’t feel comfortable in.

  4. Silence and silent prayer or meditation is so worrying to many of us, Leading morning and evening prayer as i sometimes do makes one aware how long a minute or two can seem when you ask for silent reflection which I sometimes prefer to the sterotyped prayers for peace, the church etc. etc. Recently Iwas faced with an hour of silence at a Quaker inspired gathering. At first nothing but what had been on your mind during day, then agonizing (how am I to spend an hour like this0, then of a sudden reflection about myself and the world in its fulness around me,and oddly in last 15 minutes I silently revisited the rosary- glorious mysteries no less.

  5. Intetesting comments considering that one of the things I looked forward to when i returned to worship in an Anglican church( after 12 years in my husband’s Prsbyterian church) was the opportunity of silent contemplation pre service and moments of deliberate silence in the service. I find knerling as i return from communion discourages those around me from talking!

  6. I agree totally. At our recent electoral synod I was sitting in the second row in the auditorium and so was one of the first to receive communion. We could not kneel to signal that we wished to remain silent after receiving our communion and while others were still to do so. A priest began a conversation with the other synod rep from our parish. She politely conversed with him. He was an older priest. After a few minutes of this I plucked up the courage to ask that they remain silent as others were still receiving communion. They did so but I didn’t like asking and agonised over whether to do so and I shouldn’t have had to.
    I used to find in some Sunday services in our parish some would be critical of young children for being noisy, and then they would chitter-chat during communion. Adults need to model the behaviour they want to see in others.

    1. Thanks, in a sad way, for confirming that this is not just a one-off peeve. For those who don’t know the terminology – Dorothy is writing about the gathering to elect a bishop. Dorothy, your point about modelling to young people is important, and may deserve another blog post from my experiences of the congregation not giving full attention when children and young people present. Blessings.

  7. I liked this. The nugget, for me: God speaks in silence. We’re surrounded by words, data, noise. Maybe our information-idolizing way of life in this century can be said to have encroached — stealthily, to put it ironically — into the places of silence where God speaks.

  8. Dear Bosco,
    Reverence unfortunately has seemed to gone out the window these days, as also respect. I have my thing especially about wafers and not unleavened bread, the wearing of vestments as and when, and the type for the occasion. But then I am an old codger bought up in a different age, I am a Christian more than a denomination. We all need the spiritual exercises of daily reading, pray, contemplation and reflection. No time for these is no time for God on the move in life.
    We are all priest of God, with a particular course ordained by him, truly to believe is not to need a man made service to a job, but to service of him and his direction through scripture and contemplation and communion with others. we must be silent to hear and feel his voice.
    ……..

  9. Matthew Williams

    I usually prefer prayerful contemplation during communion too, though I suspect this may be as much a manifestation of my introversion as theology. But I think you may be misunderstanding what drives this.

    The lower church traditions tend to emphasise that Holy Communion is a corporate act in which Christ is drawing us together – that there is a powerful ‘one another’ element to it, not just a ‘God and me’ element. It is a Holy Communion, not just a Holy Sacrament.

    Therefore they move naturally from receiving to engaging one another during communion as an expression of this. The meal reinforces our fellowship with one another as well as our fellowship with Christ, with the latter the cause of the former.

    Despite my own aesthetic preferences, it seems to me that this view of communion is on pretty solid foundations biblically, so I am inclined to make space for it. The Holy Communion is a kind of rushing forward to meet us of the Last Supper our Lord shared with his disciples, and I think it is pretty hard to argue (given the gospel accounts) that those at the first meal were only praying and not talking about things!

    It may be, however, that some people could give more thought to WHAT they are talking about!

    1. Thank you so much, Matthew, for providing this very helpful different perspective.

      I would leave to one side whether the Eucharist is more than merely replicating the Last Supper (obviously IMO it is), and using what occurred there as a template to replicate in our own celebrations.

      I wonder how the emphasis “that Holy Communion is a corporate act in which Christ is drawing us together” plays out when some, huddling in small groups chatting, are thereby causing division from others seeking to wait on God together in silence, or on other occasions gently sing a communion song together? What are they talking about? What God is sharing through the scriptures read – or strategising and gossiping? Or having conversations that could wait until after the service – does the effect of Christ’s meeting us in Communion wear off quickly so that there is a need for “rushing” into these conversations?

      I am a strong stresser of the community aspect of the Eucharist and Christianity – I experience the chatting as dividing the community rather than uniting it.

      But I stress again, I am very appreciative of a different perspective being presented here, Matthew.

      Blessings.

      1. Matthew Williams

        Thank you brother for your reply. I think what struck me about your post, and it is still present in this reply, and indeed is all too common from all traditions in the church talking about each other, is that there is a tendency to impute the worst motives to people ‘not like us’, and then to huddle up talking about how bad they are. In the process we become far worse than anything we could be criticising.

        Even where you admit you don’t actually know something (e.g. what they are talking about) you then speculate something bad (‘strategising and gossiping’), and then proceed as though that was the probable answer.

        It seems to me that this reveals more about your attitude to those brothers and sisters than takes us any closer to the truth about what they are actually doing. If anything actually exacerbates divisions in our church, it is not differences in liturgical practice between traditions, but when we respond to those differences with uncharitable speculations and judgemental spirits.

        If they knew this troubled you or negatively affected your prayer life, I hope they would love you enough to be quiet. But your Christian response is not to demand they love you this much – but to love them enough to respect they have different understandings and practices in their worship too.

        Next time someone is chatting distractingly through your prayers, rather than turning your prayers into judgements, why not turn them on the welfare of that person?

        Blessings
        Matt

        1. Strong words, Matt, but since we are attempting to be honest with each other, I think your response is actually reflecting your own interpretation rather than mine!

          I cannot see where I suggest that strategising is a bad thing – that is your interpretation, not mine. Nor can I see where I “proceed as though that was the probable answer”. Might I also suggest that placing my thoughts on the most-read Christian site in NZ is the very opposite of the “huddling up” you claim I am doing.

          Blessings.

          1. Matthew Williams

            Sorry Bosco, they were not intended to be strong words, I wrote them with intention to be gentle. It’s hard to make tone clear with people you don’t know personally.

            I had assumed you meant something negative by ‘strategising’ because you coupled it with ‘gossiping’, which I find hard to read as a neutral term. Sorry I misunderstood your intention here.

            In my experience, when we actually listen to each other, 25% of the divisions between Anglican traditions are real and significant matters of difference – and the other 75% are misunderstandings because we don’t really listen to each other. I am interested in helping break down the 75%. That’s all I was hoping to do here.

            Blessings
            Matt

  10. Francis Noordanus

    Hi Bosco,
    I appreciate your postings and this one in particular. I have two comments about the scenario you described: Firstly that to my ears the prayer life of a priest echoes through their liturgical leadership. Unless they ARE people of prayer there is no ‘music’. Secondly I am saddened by the way Eucharist is timed more by Chronos than Kairos. Just because the clock based arrangements prescribe Eucharist does not mean it is the right time. The difference can be prayerful preparation which is more like the proverbial length of a piece of string than completing a shape or sequence of prayers. It involves God and self and Body awareness that come through prayer. This is a Western cultural issue and one that I struggle with. In the setting of Synods and Deanery meetings the transition from energetic debate to sharing Eucharist is sometimes so harsh that very skilful gathering or re-gathering is required. A coffee break is not enough.
    Peace.

  11. Evangelical frivolity and irreverence around the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper would have been highly offensive to our evangelical forebears, who laid great emphasis on Holy Communion as a remembrance of the enormous sacrifice Christ made for us on the Cross. Charles Simeon traced his conversion story to a requirement of his Cambridge College that all undergrads receive communion at least three times a year. ‘Satan was as fit to receive as I’, Simeon says, and the process of spiritual soul-searching led to a profound conversion that culminated in a glorious experience of communion with Christ at the Easter communion service in 1779.

    Similar stories of reverence for the sacrament as a principal means of grace could be told about the lives of many of the early evangelical leaders on the 18th century. So when your evangelical colleagues treat Holy Communion with anything other than reverence, Bosco, they are not only offending Anglo-Catholic sensibilities – they are being disloyal to the devotional heritage of their own (‘our own’, I should say, since I gladly count myself into this ‘tribe’) tradition as well.

    Very sad.

  12. It is so wonderful to hear of more and more people who value the art of Silent Prayer. For me it is the most important part of my prayer life. Being at one with God in the silence of my mind and listening to what he wants to say to me is so spiritual. I have been running a small group practising the art of Prayers of Contemplation for about a year now and although only a small group we all treasure the time we spend together with our God.
    We also have the problem of talking straight after Communion when for me we should be at one with God our Heads Bowed down in Wonder and gratitude for what we have just received.
    Keep Praying
    Sheila

  13. Gillian Trewinnard

    At the church of St Michael and All Angels (Christchurch, NZ) at Michaelmas, I was struck – moved in fact – by the beautiful silence amongst the people as we waited for the choir to receive communion first. It was truly a precious interval and I will never forget being in that full church with a couple of hundred others waiting and praying silently. (Then the choir returned to their place and sang during the rest of communion – for the first time I wished they had not.) Just that morning I had been at a small church where people talked and laughed loudly while others were still waiting to receive the bread and wine. But I have noticed that small-town people find silence uncomfortable in a gathering.

  14. I could write 500 words… or I can just say ‘aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgh’…. silently, of course, on the inside, when I find myself in the exact same situation.

  15. Thanks for the timely comment Bosco.

    When on earth can we be silent, if we cannot
    endure refraining from conversations during Holy Communion…..recognising that for others it may be a most holy moment never to be repeated?
    How dare that holy moment be interrupted by others conversing about ANYTHING!

  16. thank you for all the comments, two weeks back i took leave from work to attend the annual clergy retreat. it was the 1st time i have attended and so i was looking forward to a time of silence seeking God’s face. to my horror and disappointment the silence was made optional and what is worse is that senior clergy were the most bosterious. i think people just don’t understand the importance of silence and reverence. we are losing something of value if we can’t be silent in God’s presence. maybe that is the point we no longer see coming to Church as going to be in God’s presence but as a meeting place for religious practices. keep on blogging i am the 1st timer on this blog and already i love it. God’s blessings in your ministry.

    1. Thanks, Malin. Yes, whenever I encounter this I have to remind myself that the word “retreat” is used in a secular context for a time away to brain-storm or train, etc. and that the church often uses that word now in that secular sense, rather than out of our own tradition of silence, prayer, and contemplative growing in our relationship with God. Blessings.

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