Trinity 6: Prayer in a Europe of many languages

This week’s lectionary reflection is written by Dr Clare Amos, Diocesan Director of Lay Discipleship and administrator of this blog.

One of the ‘traditions’ at the World Council of Churches, where I worked for seven years, is that whenever the Lord’s Prayer is said, whether in the offices in Geneva or in a meeting in another part of the world, people are asked to say the prayer in their own language. It is a tradition that I have grown to appreciate very much. It requires sensitivity on the part of the leader of worship – once having started off the prayer they need to drop their voices. It also often requires sensitivity on the part of the congregation, because it many contexts it would be very easy for English speakers to dominate, and to drown out the rest of the worshippers. But done well – as it generally is in World Council of Churches circles – it is a powerful and moving affirmation of the quest for unity in diversity, the spirit which undergirds the ecumenical movement.

I believe that this practice also happens at a number of the chaplaincies in our Diocese in Europe, in which, even if English is the ‘common tongue’ of worship, there are many members of our congregations whose mother language is different. It does potentially say something important about the relationship of our churches and chaplaincies as both ‘guests and hosts’ in the contexts in which we minister. When we took the group of our diocesan 2018-2019 ministry experience scheme interns to the Holy Land last November one site that they all seemed especially to enjoy visiting was the Church of the Pater Noster, the church on the Mount of Olives where the Lord’s Prayer is displayed in well over a hundred different languages. One of our group who himself came originally from Cornwall was very impressed to discover a plaque with the Prayer written in Cornish!

pater-noster-2

Some of the versions of the Lord’s Prayer on display at the Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem.

The Lord’s Prayer – in the shorter version that it is found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 11.2-4) is the core of the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday. The Gospel then continues (verses 5-13) to tease out the meaning of prayer from this initial starting point, and it is significant that it ends – as it has also effectively begun – with a reference to God as our heavenly Father.

For one thing that is fundamental about the Lord’s Prayer is its starting point. It does not begin with confession of our sins, or indeed with prayers of intercession and need for ourselves or others. Rather it starts with the affirmation that God is our Father – and offers praise to God’s name. So it is a prayer grounded in thanksgiving for and assurance of our existing relationship with God, rather than a prayer that seeks to create such a relationship. That is a vital principle for Christian prayer. The classic book that has most influenced my own understanding of prayer – J Neville Ward, The Use of Praying, makes the point eloquently that prayer needs to begin with thanksgiving and praise – and the other dimensions of prayer flow out of that. That is also the modern Anglican understanding of the Eucharist (a word which itself means ‘thanksgiving’). The ‘Gloria’ is now set as the first element of the service (not the last – which is where Cranmer placed it). We are all – in our unity and our diversity – beloved children of God and that needs to be the primary principle undergirding our relationship with God – and with each other.

It is often and truly said that the Gospel of Luke gives a particular importance to prayer and its essential role in the life and ministry of Jesus. So the point – here – when Jesus teaches his disciples to emulate him in prayer seems to be of particular importance. It is noteworthy that it comes immediately after two important passages (which have provided the lectionary Gospel readings for the previous two weeks). The first of these is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37) and the second is Jesus’ supper at Bethany with Martha and Mary when Jesus’ commended Mary for her listening to him (Luke 10.38-42). It is possible to see these two passages as expressing the dual focus of Jesus’ ministry – both the need for practical compassion and action for others, and the need for quiet listening to the word of God. Can we suggest that placing the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer at this point is therefore intended to reinforce the wisdom that prayer and action belong together – and action, whether on behalf of ourselves or others needs to be rooted in prayer and our family relationship to God?

It is also interesting to explore both how the different petitions of the Lord’s Prayer seem to be exemplified in the later teaching of Jesus in this Gospel (especially chapters 15-17), and then are hinted at during the passion of Jesus as portrayed by Luke. Remembering TS Eliot’s line about ‘where prayer has been valid’, we can say that in the Gospel of Luke lives out and validates his own prayer through his life and his sacrificial death.

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