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Liturgy Month: the Prayer of Preparation

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This month, at Ed’s Slipper, we’re celebrating liturgy. This is because it is a rich part of both the Catholic and the Anglican heritage – and probably other denominations too, I’m just not quite as acquainted with them! Liturgy, which means literally “public worship”, refers to the way services are ordered. It includes vestments, structure, but, in a more restricted sense, means the set of prayers we read in worship.


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC License

The first prayer in the Anglican communion service is called the prayer of preparation. It goes like this:

Almighty Father,
to whom all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name
through Christ our Lord

This prayer is designed to put us in the right mindset for worship: with clean thoughts in our hearts. But while cleansing is the only petition in this prayer, a lot more happens, especially in the first three lines.

In them, we are coming into the presence of God: we are describing him as almighty – as someone greater than all of us. We are also abandoning all pretense at making ourselves look righteous, because we describe God as all-knowing. Yet this description is not one that is cold and objective: we don’t say “Almighty and all-knowing God”. No, we are saying, in this, that God knows all desires – and through this, that he cares for them. That he cares for us.

In three lines, we have expressed the amazing fact that God who is so powerful, so much greater than all of us, is also someone who cares for us, in whose presence we can enter. We have made this theoretical fact personal – at least if we meant the words behind the prayer and did more than consider them a mere introduction to the apparent meat of the prayer, the petition itself. This is, I believe, one of the purposes of all the liturgy: to help us to make those truths about God and about our relationship with Him deeply personal and heartfelt, rather than just known intellectually.

Therefore, the meat of the prayer of preparation is not the petition. Still, this petition is important too: it is a declaration of our willingness to become pure in our thoughts and a recognition of due reverence to God. More than that, though, it is asking God to cleanse us, recognising that we cannot (or at list will not) do it in our own strength. This completes the revelation from the first three lines that we cannot hide our sinful condition from God.

Finally, the prayer of preparation is completed by looking back up towards God. The aim here is not to be selective in what we are allowed to pray for, but to lift our hearts back up to God. In this, we are truly prepared for worship.

Below, you will find a sermon I preached on the topic.

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Audio download link (right click, hit download) – sermon notes

Other posts on specific pieces of liturgy

For us and for our salvation

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of Christ, amen!

Purple or sackcloth?

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No, this post is not about a new beverage option at Pop. It is about liturgical colours, and their potential significance.

Lent has just started. Which means it’s the end of ordinary time, and green has stopped adorning our church altars, being replaced by either purple or sackcloth. The question of liturgical colours is arcane, at best, to the outsider. I only recently found out that there were rules about them (in the Church of England). But where there are rules, there – generally – is meaning.


Background photo: Andrew Kelsall, reused under CC license

Let us look at purple first. Now, purple is also used in another season: Advent. A season of anticipation where we prepare both for Christmas (and the celebration of the birth of Jesus) and the Second Coming. Similarly, Lent is a period that leads up to Easter, in which we are preparing for both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In this case, there is nothing to say that purple specifically symbolises anticipation – and it might as well be just another colour

Sackcloth, on the other hand, is only used at Lent. It is a bland colour compared to the other colours used throughout the year. It denotes simplicity, and a form of fasting. Therefore, in using sackcloth as the liturgical colour for Lent, we are insisting on the disciplines associated with the season itself, and on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness.

Both choices of colour have their implications: one focuses on the ultimate conclusion of Lent, while the other one focuses on Lent itself. Through this, they are indicative of theological positions the incumbent wishes to take for this season: whether they wish to remind the congregation of their salvation that comes from the Cross (purple!) or wish to lead them, through penitence, to have contrite hearts (sackcloth!)*

It is a shame, really, that such a choice needs to be made. Because both elements complement each other fittingly, and actually make little to no sense independently of each other. If the disciplines we take on for Lent are seen as an attempt at self-sanctification, they are doomed to failure and actually not to be recommended. If they are seen as us submitting ourselves to temptation like Jesus did in the wilderness, then, again, we are being very pretentious to think that we can, in our own strength, resist temptation. Sackcloth alone makes no sense, because, knowing that Jesus is the one who brings us sanctification, any effort made independently makes no sense.

But purple alone makes no sense either. In Advent, the countdown to Christmas is more than that: it is also an expression of our anticipation of the Second Coming – a repeat of Christmas. But are we expecting a second Easter? If we were, we’d be saying that the sacrifice on the Cross would need to be repeated – which we obviously aren’t. So the anticipation part of Lent only makes sense if we are looking to Easter as the fulfillment, or the culmination, of what we do during Lent. The purple only makes sense of the sackcloth.

Over Lent, let us not forget this: that through our disciplines (if we follow any), we ought to be looking to Christ and to Easter; and that in looking to Easter, we ought to allow ourselves to be sanctified.

* Or the church does not have sackcloth vestments; or floral arrangements are easier to make with one colour; or the warden simply likes sackcloth better. Sometimes, I can read a bit too much into things…

Liturgy: the same old stuff

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I love liturgy. There are many reasons for that: traditional liturgy is the result of centuries of selection and, consequently, it tends to be distilled, concentrated words of worship which ease our prayer. Traditional liturgy is also the expression of church unity worldwide and across centuries. Picture billions of people saying Amen, together, to the same words: that is what liturgy allows.

Tried and tested. Ecumenical. Exciting. Fresh.


Photo: Richard Gilin, re-used under CC License

Hang on – fresh? Never mind the quaint archaisms, the thous and the thees from 1662, how can something – anything – be fresh if it is repeated week after week after week? Surely after so long we go into some form of routine and stop feeling and hearing the power of the words we are uttering.

This is true, of course. Routine does come in. It is especially true if the exact same order of service is used, week in, week out. What I find, sometimes, is that the collect – the dedicated section of the service that changes every week, albeit to the same text every year – is the part of the service where I am most likely to tune out; despite my best efforts.

So, yes, there is a routine. So much so that I can be slightly annoyed at the absence of the prayer of humble access. But this routine, rather than stopping me from engaging, actually is what allows me to engage with the words I am saying on a deeper level. A slight emphasis change, and a whole new meaning of what I have said becomes clear. Start stressing “For us” in the Creed – you’ll see.

Routine can be beneficial to worship: it structures the service, and within the service, it focuses the prayer. But for that to happen, two conditions must be met:

  • liturgy must be alive. It must be clear that the leader is not simply reading those words, but proclaiming them. Now, unless you’re presiding over services, you may think there isn’t much you can do about that – but you’re wrong! Prayer is never passive; and it is rare for corporate prayer to be merely the sum of individual prayers. When you pray with conviction and passion, you will have an influence over those near you, and, gradually, remind the leader of the power of the words he or she is proclaiming. And if that fails, you can always have a chat with your worship leader.
  • you must not expect change, but be open to it. Expecting new stuff is not only setting yourself up for disappointment, it also means that you’ll be seeking out those tiny differences, at the expense of the wealth that you already know. But if you are closed to change; that is to say, if you think from the start that you know what you’re saying (and how you’ll react to it) backwards, then you won’t engage with it at all.

And like most things, getting to these stages takes some time: time to get familiar enough with the liturgy that you can navigate it to experience those changes and realise how exciting and alive it is. So give it some time, and know that liturgy will come alive.

A bit like Scripture, really.

For us and for our salvation


It is no news that I love liturgy. Or rather, I love being excited about liturgy: I love the passion that still transpires through prayers crafted centuries ago. The Nicene creed has probably been said by billions of people (in various forms and languages) and is an example of such a powerful prayer. I’ll focus on one line:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.


Icon of the Nicene Creed in the public domain

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven! It’s not abstract! It’s not “For the world”, or “for humanity”. The original Greek actually starts with “For us humans” – making it clear that “us” is not simply a byword for an abstract concept, but something deeply and utterly personal and communal. The same goes for “our salvation”, where the Greek ἡμετέραν is the emphatic form of “our” (although, admittedly, this form is far more frequent than its non-emphatic counterpart ἡμῶν).

More than that: it is for us and for our salvation that Jesus came down from heaven. Jesus did not simply come to be nailed upon a cross and provide salvation. No, he came first for usRedemption is not a cold, mechanical adjustment of a cosmic balance sheet. Penal substitution, without love, is nothing. There is a tendency, especially in evangelical circles, to focus too much on sin and thereby on the need for salvation through atonement. This focus is backwards: his love comes first. “For us” comes first, because it is only in the light of this love that the cross can  begin to make sense.

The Nicene Creed does not say “For our sanctification and for our salvation”, either. The Incarnation is Jesus coming down from heaven, to meet us where we are. This isn’t about meeting the potential, sanctified person we will end up being – no, it is about meeting us in the here and now.

But the Nicene Creed does not stop at saying “For us” – it recognises the importance of atonement. “For us” is where Christ meets us, “for our salvation” is where he takes us. In saying the Creed, we should be taken by this movement and filled with a hope that has no bound – a hope of salvation, grounded in the intimate knowledge of Christ’s love.

Next time you read the Nicene Creed, feel the passion and the involvement it invites: from the very first “We believe” to the final agreement “Amen”.

Liturgy: dust off our feet


I love liturgy. Not as a set of dead rules, but as something that brings life to common worship. In the more modern evangelical circles, however, where congregational polity is more frequent, it feels rather out of place. After all, clinging on to set words rather than hoping for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes across as Romish, backward and at its worst, in contradiction of what Paul says. To people who aren’t used to liturgy, it can look like brainwashing – speaking the words of the prayer without engaging your brain, nor your spirit.


Photo: Joe Dunckley, reused under CC license.

So it’s natural that us liturgy-lovers subconsciously jump to its defense. I’ve had conversations with friends where liturgy was defended as, simply, unavoidable. That whether official or not, there was always some level of modern liturgy lurking in the background. I’ve laughed when I saw videos taking fun of Christianese, because they describe exactly what that modern liturgy looks like. I’ve smiled at the use of “Amen” as a pious “Over” or “Over and out”.

But when I look at modern evangelical or charismatic Christianity in that way, all I’m doing is bring their practices down to the level of my, for wont of a better word, insecurities about traditional liturgy. Rather than looking at the positive in the very nature of liturgy, I’m discarding it as something we all do anyway. But in doing that, I don’t leave myself any space to say anything good about liturgy. So all I can do is look at some parts of the liturgy – specific prayers – and explain how much of a good prayer they are. And I have done that on a few occasions here. What I can’t do, is say why using more or less ancient forms of public worship is a good idea in and of itself.

Before I get into that, I should frame what I’m saying. Here’s what Hooker says:

True it is, the ancienter, the better ceremonies of religion are; howbeit, not absolutely true and without exception: but true only so far forth as those different ages do agree in the state of those things, for which at the first those rites, orders, and ceremonies, were instituted.

Preface to the Laws; chapter IV.4

Liturgy does not take precedence over relevance. If it really jars with either law or common secular practice, then you really need another reason to justify keeping the traditional liturgy going.

But as long as it’s not at complete odds with the culture of the age, Hooker concedes: the ancienter, the better. Why is that?

Going with tradition means inscribing yourself in a long line of worshippers before you and after you. There’s a famous image from Jewish tradition suggesting disciples should seek to be covered in the dust of their rabbi (as a result of being so close to them). I like to see liturgy in the same way as I see this dust: in itself, it is nearly insignificant; but it goes hand in hand with the attitude of a follower. And when the disciple turns rabbi, some of that dust will fall on their disciples; making  an unbroken, worshipping communion that stretches through the ages.

But rejecting tradition means breaking that line. And that means breaking yourself off from future generations of worshippers too. The dust that you have lifted will be shaken off the sandals of those who follow you.

That’s why the ancienter the liturgy, the better. Because, intrinsically, it goes hand in hand with the truly humble attitude of following our forebears and allows us to lead on future generations. And simply on the basis that it has been kept alive for this long, suggesting that there might actually be something in it after all!

Liturgy is not a straitjacket, nor should it be treated as such. It is, however, wonderful to use it as a support for our worship: accepting it where appropriate and making it our own. To make it our own can take so many forms, too! We can mix it up, drawing from a variety of traditions; we can write our own prayers; we can experiment a little bit too. But let’s not be ashamed to look at the past to order our services.