I have been reading an old book that bears the title The Prayers of the Early Church (1930), written by Dom Fernand Cabrol, a Benedictine. It is a study of how the early church developed prayer within the context of liturgy. There is much to like in this treatment but some things to pursue that will not gain universal acclaim for sure. The flavor is quite Roman Catholic.
In a chapter titled “Forms of Prayer” the author writes: “From the very outset one of the distinguishing features of liturgical prayer is the element of spontaneity or improvisation in its utterance.” He adds, “Thus we learn from Justin, Tertullian, and most of the writers of this period . . . even the most solemn formulas were extemporized.” Variety and free-form were normative but in time more was written down. He rightly concludes: “However, this freedom of improvisation was not anarchy. Prayer was subject to certain rules; in some instances the theme was necessarily used, for instance in the name of the three divine persons in the administration of Baptism and the words of institution in the celebration of the Eucharist. All liturgies bear out this fact, for notwithstanding their variety all have preserved these traditional formulas.”
The distinguishing feature of these early gathered prayers was spontaneity. There are forms we can discover, for sure, but people were allowed to speak and pray in public. This does not argue against read (liturgical) prayers at all. After all, the New Testament provides such prayers. But it does argue against limiting all prayer in worship to one or two leaders. The church must pray when it gathers, all of it. Some will speak. Some will not. But the Spirit must not be limited to forms. Forms have their place but freedom is a mark of congregational life in worship.
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