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Presbyterian Prayer Book

Eutychus II

American Presbyterians have never been comfortable with reading prayers or prayer books. This stands in contrast to the Dutch Calvinist tradition which has included written prayers and liturgical forms in most of their hymnbooks and psalters. The old Christian Reformed Church psalter-hymnal, for instance, includes prayers for before and after meals, before and after church assemblies, the sick, and for various parts of the worship service. Although undocumented, many believe these prayers originated with John Calvin. Most of these prayers are also included in the Canadian and American Reformed Churches' Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

Presbyterians, however, left written prayers behind in the seventeenth century, a dismal century for the theological descendents of John Calvin. At a time when the former monarchial dynasty of Scotland, the Stuarts, tried to unify Ireland, Wales, and Scotland under British rule, Presbyterians acquired a healthy dose of distrust for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This was understandable since formal liturgies were synonymous with political persecution by kings who either flirted with Roman Catholicism or had no use for Presbyterian faith and practice.

Contemporary Presbyterians may not know the history, but each Sunday they sit in pews stocked with hymnals that reflect this background. Whether they sing from the old Trinity Hymnal or the newer version, American Presbyterians use books that apparently include no formal or written prayers. Some of the older Trinity Hymnals included forms from the OPC's Directory for Public Worship to be used for ordination, baptism, or the Lord's Supper. And both hymnals include selections from the Psalms for responsive reading. But the continental Reformed practice of including prayers and liturgical forms is lost on American Presbyterians. The reasons for this are bound up with the history of antagonism between Presbyterians and Anglicans in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But seldom noticed in this development of hostility to prayer books is the accompanying change in understanding of song. Whether Presbyterians recognize it or not, song has long been regarded as a form of prayer. Calvin, for instance, believed the worship service included three parts: word, sacrament, and prayer. Since Genevans only sang psalms, their singing might qualify as the word. But Calvin actually taught that song was properly a form of prayer, which was also his reason for insisting that the church sing from God's inspired prayer book, the Old Testament Psalter.

So whether we know it or not, Orthodox Presbyterians do in fact have a prayer book, and it is the Trinity Hymnal. Or at least that is one way of looking at it. Other reasons for singing are not immediately obvious, except perhaps for having the congregation sing just before the sermon, a practice that suggests as much the need for the congregation to rise and stretch their legs and lungs before hunkering down in their pews for at least a half hour while the pastor expounds the word.

In which case, if prayer is a form of song, why do we allow people to write our prayers (read: hymns) whom we would not allow in our pulpits to lead the congregation in prayer? For starters, our hymnals include some creations by women, which raises some difficult questions about gender and office. But not every male hymn writer is kosher either. The most popular hymn writer for English-speaking Protestants is Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley composed over 6,000 hymns in his life. Presbyterians may not use as many of Wesley's hymns as the Methodists, but in both Trinity Hymnals Wesley is the author with the most compositions. (The second is Isaac Watts; the third is Horatio Bonar.) Many of Wesley's hymns are generally acceptable, though the hymnals editors would sometimes have to alter words to excise a non-Calvinistic conception of the Christian life. "Christ, whose glory fills the skies," for instance, is Wesley's most popular hymn among Presbyterians and is as good as the eighteenth-century Methodist could get.

But if Wesley would not pass the muster of presbytery for licensure or ordination, why do we let him lead our congregations in prayer? This is one of the curiosities in American Presbyterian practice that stems from the liturgical and political contests of seventeenth-century England and Scotland. I sometimes think that the way to settle the differences of opinion in contemporary worship over music is by insisting that everyone sing only psalms. This was the practice of most Protestants (except the Lutherans) until the eighteenth century. And it would succeed in quieting the disputes over congregational song by making no one happy. Gone forever would be the debate over "traditional" hymns versus "contemporary" praise songs. Presbyterians would simply be stuck with the "ancient" forms of song sung by previous generations of saints. But even if exclusive psalmody is not an option, if Presbyterians could spend more time thinking about song as a form of prayer, they might have a keener appreciation and concern for what they do sing each Lord's day when the saints assemble to sing praise and thanksgiving to the God of their salvation. One way to start is by accepting that Presbyterians really do believe in prayer books—they simply refer to them as hymnals.

Eutychus II continues the tradition of Eutychus I, Ed Clowney's pen name in the initial issues of Christianity Today (1956-1960). As Clowney explained in his later anthology, Eutychus (and His Pin): "Eutychus was summoned to his post as a symbol of Christians nodding, if not on the window-sill, at least in the back pew." Like his namesake, Eutychus II aims at "deflating ecclesiastical pretense, sham and present-day religiosity." This nom de plume will remain a cover for this ecclesiastical sleuth—to maintain his anonymity, and thus his freedom to poke fun. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 16.4, April 2007.

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