“Set prayers” are prayers that are written down and prayed more than once by more than one person. In general, this could be any prayer jotted down in a bulletin so the congregation can read along, or typed up in an email to a friend. More specifically, “set prayers” are found in print, such as the Book of Common Prayer, and are prayed by worshipers at every Eucharist service or Daily Office.
During the English Interregnum, while the Puritans controlled the Church of England, “set prayers” were officially attacked, in favor of extemporaneous prayer, operating on the idea that spontaneity and “Spirit-led” were the same. While the English Church recovered its traditional Anglican favor for using set prayers in worship, most American Protestant groups have followed suit with the Puritans and developed a distrust for pre-fabricated prayer. For some reason, they thought that planned sermons and commonly-known songs were fine, but pre-written prayers were not trustworthy unless God himself wrote it (such as the Lord’s Prayer).
To those who have this mindset, or to those who are curious about the value of set prayers versus extemporaneous prayers, I offer this excellent (if long) quote from a sermon from 1681.
Moreover, that which conduces to the quickening [of] our souls and to the raising up [of] our affections in our public devotions needs to be acknowledged to conduce much to our edification too. But it is plain, as to such purposes, that a set form of prayer is an extraordinary help to us.
For if I hear another pray, and know not beforehand what he will say, I must first listen to what he will say next; then I am to consider whether what he said to be agreeable to sound doctrine, and whether it be proper and lawful for me to join with him in the petitions he puts up to God Almighty; and if I think it is so, then I am do to it. But before I can well do that, he has moved on to another thing; by which means it is very difficult if not morally impossible, to join with him in everything so regularly as I ought to do.
But by a set form of prayer all this trouble is prevented; for having the form continually in my mind, being thoroughly acquainted with it, fully approving of every thing in it, and always knowing beforehand what will come next, I have nothing else to do, while the words are sounding in my ears, but to move my heart and affections suitably to them, to raise up my desires of those good things which are prayed for, and to fix my mind wholly upon God, while I am praising Him, and so to employ, quicken, and lift up my whole soul in performing my devotions to Him.
No man who has been accustomed to a set form for any considerable time won’t easily find this to be true by his own experience, and by consequence, that this way of praying is a greater help to us than those who have never tried can imagine.*
In short, when we say or hear prayers together that we know well, it’s very edifying for us, and just as acceptable to God. Consider two parallels, singing songs and reading the Bible. Learning a new song is more of a mental exercise than an immediate act of worship, but once you’ve learned the song, you can worship with it much more deeply. Reading the Bible is a great devotion, but if it’s the first time you’ve read a given passage, there can be a lot of initial study and confusion to get through before the richer benefits come to fruition. Prayer can be very similar.
I don’t write this to disparage extemporaneous prayer; it certainly has its place alongside set prayers. They fulfill different spiritual needs and address different devotional concerns; they are both greatly valid. Though there is an important issue of context to consider:
- Set prayers are more useful (and therefore should be more prominent)in common worship, that is, worship that is shared between different people in the unity of the Church.
- Extemporaneous prayers are more useful (and therefore should be more prominent) in personal devotions, that is, worship that is offered by an individual irrespective of other members of the Church.
So for those who are skeptical of the value of set prayers, I hope this explains their usefulness. And for those who are on the fence about them, I hope this has reassured you of their place.
* This quote is a single paragraph on page 7 in the original printing. I edited some of the wording and grammatical constructions to make it more readable in the 21st century.