Reformed Unitarian Communal Prayer

Whether during services or delivered as part of a ceremonial occasion, a public prayer presents the leader of prayer with a terrible temptation: to speak to the audience rather than to God. The purpose of prayer is to adjust the relationship between the one praying and the One to whom the prayer is addressed, not to lecture the audience.

Some Catholics recently expressed valid concerns about this sort of co-opting of prayer for pedagogical or even political purposes, in discussion of a prayer to be delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at Ground Zero in New York City, but prepared for him by others. It is a problem common to all religions.

AUR’s stance on this is simple: homilies and sermons are the proper occasions for teaching and discussing; prayers are for setting right one’s relationship with God. Prayer should not be used to make a point to people who might overhear, including the group in whose name the prayer is delivered. As Jesus put it:

When you pray, don’t be like the play-actors, because they love to pray standing in the worship halls and on the street corners to be seen by others. I tell you: they’ve received their reward in full. But, when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, Who is unseen. Then your Father (Who sees what is done in secret) will reward you. And when you pray, don’t keep on rambling on like the pagans, because they think they’ll be heard because of their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. – The Gospel Of Matthew 6:5-8

Of course, for the purposes of building and maintaining religious community, spoken prayers are necessary temptations, but they must be faced as temptations, their potential corruptions resisted in a conscious and concerted fashion. The leader of prayer should keep in mind that the advice above was followed by the example known as the Lord’s Prayer, a simple request for basic needs (and a promise to forgive others in return for being forgiven) kept modest with the Humility of Gethsemane: “Your will be done.”

Delivered prayers should be addressed to God, and should not be taken as an opportunity to deliver a sidelong lecture to those within ear shot. The necessary “I” of a spoken prayer necessarily includes the “We” who are participating in the prayer, and the leader of prayer should respect the moral autonomy of this We. Prayers may be topical, but should also be general (where required by ettiquette and piety), non-controversial, and humble.

(The photograph above is from the Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, whose excellent instructions on sincere prayer can be read here.)