One of the things most misunderstood about the liturgical tradition is the value and purpose of pre-written prayers. The “free church” tradition, which is overwhelmingly popular and influential in America, is so steeped in a culture of individuality that its very spirituality is individualized. Pre-written prayers tend to be regarded with amusement at best, and reviling at worst. “How can it be spiritual if it doesn’t come from your heart?” they ask.
The short answer, of course, is to open the Bible and observe its largest constituent book is a collection of pre-written prayers.
But to offer a more thought-out explanation about the value of the liturgy and its pre-written prayers, I’d like to share this quote I recently came across from Charles Simeon, in his Sermon #192.
Many, if their imaginations are pleased and their spirits elevated, are ready to think that they have been greatly edified, and this error is at the root of that preference which they give to extempore prayer, and the indifference which they manifest towards the prayers of the established church.
But real edification consists in humility of mind, and in being led to a more holy and consistent walk with God, and one atom of such a spirit is more valuable than all the animal fervor that ever was excited.
It is with solid truths, and not with fluent words, that we are to be impressed, and if we can desire from our hearts the things which we pray for in our public forms, we need never regret that our fancy was not gratified or our animals spirits raised by the delusive charms of novelty.
In modern parlance, what he’s basically saying is that people are quick to deem a sermon deep, moving, or spirit-filled when it impacts them emotionally. And he links this emotionalism to their preference for extemporaneous (unscripted) prayer over the written prayers and liturgy of the church. Rather, he argues, humility and holiness are the true fruits of good worship and preaching, regardless of the emotional reaction. He regards emotionalism as “animal” fervor or spirit, as it is typically not well correlated to actual Truth .
The ideal, he sees, is for us to “desire from our hearts the things which we pray for” in the liturgy. This means the heart and mind are both involved, neither is neglected, and they’re working in accord with the Spirit’s calling. “Novelty,” or seeking after new and original prayers, is a “delusive charm.” The Christian call to humility and holiness is the same for everyone; there is no actual need for each of us to pray for such things in our own unique words every time we open our mouths. When biblical, humble, and holy words are found and written down, it is not only permissible, but desirable, that we use and hold such prayers in common. The “delusive charm” of trying to make every prayer unique and personalized is simply a “fancy” that true humility and holiness can live without. The heart does not need tickling, it needs filling, and the truth of Christ himself alone can and will do that.