Be a Prayer

Should we say our prayers or read them?

Some fairly strong opinions on the subject have driven people one direction or the other in their search for a place to worship.  Baptists will extol the virtues of extemporaneous prayers.  Catholics will celebrate the written prayers of the church and rely on them with regularity.  Other denominations are scattered across the spectrum in between.

People can also be fairly passionate about their commitments.  For some Episcopalians the Bible is just The Book of Common Prayer taken out of context.  Others have argued that written prayers are just about as bad for you spiritually as anything you can do.

Judith Maltbey, who is the Chaplain and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, notes that, ironically, it was an Anglican curate who protested in the early seventeenth century:

I am perswaded that the reading of Common prayer hath beene the meanes of sending many souls to hell.  That booke of Common prayer doth stinke in the nostraills of god.  The reading of Common prayers is as bad or worse than the mumbling of the masse upon beades.

The problem with the solutions offered at either end of the debate over how to pray — like most of the answers offered from the vantage point of two extremes — is that a lot of truth is lost in the search for simple solutions.  So, a bit of balance might be helpful:

Both kinds of prayer are legitimate and each emphasizes a different aspect of prayer without excluding the possibilities offered by the other.

Extemporaneous prayers are the stuff of a lived relationship with God. If you can’t imagine talking to God without an aid to the conversation, it may mean that you are not particularly familiar with God, never mind prayer.   Extemporaneous prayer requires a lively, contemporary sense of God’s presence.

On the other hand, written prayers keep that conversation from being all about you.  The Prayers of the People that you find in The Book of Common Prayer were written with the breadth of God’s work and the needs of all of God’s people in mind.

The combination of the two, then, also speaks to the way we are formed spiritually.  Extemporaneous prayer stresses the first hand, existential nature of the Christian life.  Written prayers can serve to deepen our understanding of the Christian pilgrimage, reminding us of the ways in which we share this life with God and with others.

In the final analysis, neither form of prayer is a guarantee that we will be present to God, or deeply connected with the prayers that we say.  Without a deep desire for a relationship with God and a willingness to be present to God in the moment, prayers can be spoken, or read without any deep level of awareness.

As more than one person has noted, the way we pray is not nearly as important as living a life that becomes a prayer.

In the final analysis, when prayer goes awry, the problem almost always lies with the person praying and not with the prayer itself.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.