Compared to the freight borne by the eucharistic prayer in Christian theology and spirituality, relatively little has been considered to hang on that part of the Sunday liturgy known as “The Prayers of the People” or “The Prayer of the Faithful.” It is easy enough to buy a book containing prayers of intercession tailor-made for each Sunday and special occasion in the calendar, but harder to point to a theological treatment of intercessory prayer within the context of the Eucharist.
Part of the reason for this is the invasive pathway of theological controversy in the Christian tradition, which in terms of the liturgy has tended to travel along the routes of presence and sacrifice. In regard to these subjects the Great Prayer or Canon of the Mass is a prime exhibit. Perhaps we should thank God that intercessory prayer in the eucharistic assembly has in comparison been so relatively uncontroversial. Christians have been able to make intercession together (more or less) without too much glancing over the shoulder at disputed theological points.
If this form of liturgical prayer has been neglected by theologians it has also been neglected in pastoral practice. In many quarters of the church attention is paid to preparing and leading the Prayer of the Faithful, but in other quarters this prayer is not approached with the same careful attention. In some instances the leader of the prayer may give the distinct impression that he or she has never seen it before or thought much about it in advance. Alternatively, the leader may be left with the task of adding in petitions and names in what are otherwise set forms, or improvising entirely without any preparation. No wonder that this part of the liturgy sometimes seems an afterthought.
This pastoral and theological neglect has a long history. At some point during the Latin Middle Ages the Prayer of the Faithful dropped out as a normative part of the Mass, surviving only in the extensive intercessory prayers of the Good Friday liturgy, and in abbreviated form within the Roman Canon itself. There were bright spots: extensive intercessions were a part of the processional litany sung before High Mass in many places on Sunday, and there are indications that intercession in the form of a “bidding prayer” may also have been practiced in the medieval church. It should also be said that the popularity of votive masses said with “special intention” in time of war or for good weather or whatnot continued to associate the Eucharist as a whole with intercession for particular needs.
Yet it was a bit of an innovation when Thomas Cranmer included an extensive and continuous “Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church” in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer liturgy of Holy Communion. Loosely based on the intercessions of the Roman Canon, the Prayer included general intercessions for the “universal church,” the King and his Council, the ministers and members of the church, those in “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity,” along with a commemoration of the saints and prayer for the faithful departed.
In the 1552 revision this “Prayer” found a home following the sermon and Creed. Shorn of the commemoration of saints and of prayer for the departed, and limited to “Christ’s Church militant here in earth,” this form of general intercession became the one most closely identified with the celebration of Holy Communion in the 1552 and subsequent Prayer Books. There have been some changes since then: later editions have sometimes included prayer for the departed and commemoration of the saints; modern prayer books have introduced multiple set forms; and a lay person now often leads the “Prayers of the People.”
Cranmer had recreated, willy-nilly, a form of intercession that closely approximated in content and placement the ancient “Prayer of the Faithful” that had disappeared centuries before. With the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) the “Prayer of the Faithful” was restored as well in the Roman Catholic Church in 1963.
By this prayer, in which the people are to take part, intercession will be made for holy Church, for the civil authorities, for those oppressed by various needs, for all mankind, and for the salvation of the entire world (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2). (SC 53, The Documents of Vatican II, America Press, 1966)
Intercession is priestly work, an act of mediation in the sense that the intercessor stands between two parties. The Letter to the Hebrews makes explicit the connection between Jesus’ ministry and priestly ministry under the Old Covenant. When Christ entered through the veil he became a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 6:19-20). He “entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24), not “to offer himself again and again” (Heb. 9:25) since he would have had to suffer again and again (Heb. 9:26). Christ, having offered once for all a sacrifice for sins, sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12), yet at the same time he ever lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25). The words “forever” and “now”, used to describe the “heavenly session” in Hebrews, along with the explicit reference in the seventh chapter, indicate that the Lord’s priestly work of intercession is not yet concluded.
Much ink has been spilled in theological controversy over presence and sacrifice, and the relationship between what Christians do in the celebration of the Eucharist and what Christ did on the cross, as well as in the work he continues to do in the “heavenly session” as Hebrews outlines it. But it is indisputable in Hebrews’ perspective that Jesus Christ lives now to make intercession for us, priestly work that continues. The appeal to apostolic injunction in 1 Timothy made by the preamble of the “Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church” (also, of course, in Sacrosanctum Concilium) recalls that the members of the Church are bidden to join in that priestly work of prayer to God for the whole Church and for the whole world.
Anglican commentators on the Prayer Book have often turned to the prophet Joel to explicate their own liturgy: “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord’” (Joel 2:17). The instinct is a good one, since the liturgy is of its nature an act of intercession and mediation, but only because of the intimate union that exists between Christ and the church. The priestly Body of Christ joins in the work of the Head. The presence of intercessory prayer in the Eucharistic Assembly does carry theological freight of a not insignificant sort.
Our pastoral practice of the liturgy ought to live up to this high conception of the church’s priestly work. When we offer prayer for the Church and the world we are joining in Jesus’ own prayer and following apostolic command. Bishops and priests are charged in different degrees with responsibility for the liturgy, even if they are not leading a particular part. Deacons especially, because of their traditional role as intercessors in touch with the concerns of the world, ought to have a care for the Prayers of the People.
I have a strong notion that liturgy cannot be “managed,” since it is an artefact that transcends our own devising, but it is “practiced” by the Church. The leaders of prayer ought to come to the intercessions on Sunday informed by the practice of prayer during the week, on their own if not in concert with others. Imagine a parish intercessory prayer group that is auditioning during the week for Sunday! Surely God will hear hasty and poorly formulated prayers; we’re really not required to get it all right in order to appear before the presence of God. But as is so often the case in our practice of the liturgy we have an opportunity to go deeper and discover ministries that are otherwise largely neglected. Our practice of the Prayer of the Faithful is a case in point.
As St. Augustine wrote in a sermon: “He prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our Head, and is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore let us acknowledge our voice in him and his in us” (Sermons on the Psalms 85.1).