Call and Response: Litanies for Congregational Prayer, by Fran Pratt (Outpost Press, 2018. Pp. 115. Paperback isbn 978-0-578-21386-6). 

We all could probably use some new prayers these days. Thankfully, there is a book for that. I first heard about Fran Pratt’s litany prayers through friends from the Society of Vineyard Scholars then, later, I had the pleasure of experiencing one of her prayers in a small church setting. Her book is a collection containing many of the prayers she has written and incorporated into worship in recent years. The author’s introduction and front matter are quite brief, yet I hear in her reflections a desire to address a gap that exists in (Protestant Christian) religious life in North America, or what Melanie Ross describes as a dichotomy between evangelical and liturgical traditions. To that end, Pratt’s litanies can help congregations explore and experiment with liturgical cadences using contemporary language to express and make space for a wide variety of communal experiences. 

As Melanie Ross has observed in her work, “The complexity of the American religious scene seems to require dichotomous classifications.” (Ross, Evangelical Versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy. [2015] p. 126.) However the cost of such a schema can be seen manifesting in our culture’s love for arguments and near-obsessive polarization of all things. The church is not only complicit in this, but at times goes so far as to stoke the fires of division and insularity. There is a great need to bridge the divide built up through layers of historical sediment but this need is perpetually shadowed by historically related difficulties. Even attempting a second naïveté with reclaiming etymological origins to (re)define terms like leitourgia (the work of the people) and euangelion (good news) for the benefit of finding common ground encounters significant issues. (Ross, p. 129) Similarly, James K. A. Smith proposes that we are all “liturgical animals” (Homo Liturgicus) and the question is not whether we are formed—both culturally and religiously—through liturgies, but what is the orientation of that formation. (James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation [2009].) How might our Christian worship (re)form our social imaginaries so as to incite and deepen our desire for God’s kingdom? It is along these lines that the work of Fran Pratt and her litanies has much to offer congregations seeking to engage meaningfully with a long tradition of communal prayer in corporate worship as a means to help (in)form the body of Christ.  

Her text is divided into sections that describe different postures, aims, rites and seasons for the church. The five sections and three appendices offer prayers that address church rituals (akin to the Book of Common Prayer), but mostly the prayers are directed to situations or experiences that may impact a whole community or be felt by particular individuals. In the introductory section, she distills her journey of discovery with liturgical forms of prayer during an especially challenging season of life to say, “Instead of me forming my prayers, I could let the prayers form me.” (p. iii) As a reader, I see in that statement a deep well of connection among various faith traditions, one that aptly describes a shared experience of worship, while also tugging at the difficulties we face when attempting to articulate the what and how of worship from differing traditions. Akin to Pratt’s experience, I myself followed a similar path from the “low” liturgical settings of the Vineyard Church to “high(er)” liturgical expression—in my case I landed in the Episcopal Church. In Vineyard settings, the music bears much of the weight of formation when it comes to communal worship. In the Anglican-Episcopal tradition, it is the word and form of the prayer book that takes on the heavy lifting. In both settings, it could be argued, the worship/the liturgy (in)form the theology. In other words, worship and liturgy are the hermeneutical starting point, rather than Word or Scripture or Creed as is the case with some other traditions. Formation, then, tends to have an affective dimension from the beginning. Liturgy/Worship draws us into an encounter with the Holy Other, leaving us speechless and searching for words. 

Looking closely at two initiatory prayers, the “Litany for Children” and “Litany for Baptism,” Pratt offers these prayers for the recipients through the voice of the community. These do not appear to be full rites in and of themselves, but are complements to the rite or dedication. The Litany for Children begins by thanking God for the gift of the child/children being presented and their family, followed by the call and response, “We know that you have entrusted them to their parents / And also to our community.” Here is a prayer of reception and welcome by the community that maintains the spirit of the Mark 10 passage that is found in baptismal theologies for infants and children. Similarly, in the Litany for Baptism, Pratt begins with a word of thanks for the sacraments, for baptism by water and by spirit. Where the latter prayer differs is how, in its form, it functions as a distillation of baptismal theology that the community—by reciting the prayer—remembers together even as they receive a new member(s) into the community. Baptism with water is “a symbol of our new life.” Baptism by the Spirit is “the gift of [God’s] presence in and among” the people. Together they are “symbols of promises” that “cleanse, fill, and renew.” She closes the prayer with reference to the baptismal symbolism of water and fire, New Creation, and being buried into Christ’s death and raised to new life. 

Pratt’s work renders into prayer significant motifs that, placed within the larger context of a service, offer a focal lens by which to see the leitourgia—the work of the people, co-laboring with God—in a renewed light. In the prayers for children and for baptism, she has a keen sense of the communal nature of the ritual context, and draws insightfully from scripture when communicating the symbolic significance. The reference to God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism claiming “you are my Son, with whom I am well pleased” points to the motif of adoption, which has not always been incorporated in baptismal liturgies throughout history, yet is a crucial link to doctrines of justification and sanctification. Her referential language here, “we are your children, in whom you are pleased,” offers a meaningful witness to the radical ontological shift that occurs with baptism; one that compliments Pauline accounts of baptism as death and new life in Christ. Where I might want to prompt her to dig a little deeper has to do with the elemental imagery, particularly around water and fire. In the baptism prayer, it appears that she seeks to maintain a compositional balance in reference to baptism of water and spirit—to which I do not object. I simply find myself wanting more saturation in the symbols. Does water only cleanse? How is it new life (or is God in Christ the sole source)? Perhaps related to this, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps there was a second Litany for Baptism that may have made it into the text, but was ultimately cut? Just as the Book of Common Prayer has multiple rites for Baptism and Eucharist, I would have liked to see multiple litanies included here. Giving equal priority to alternate prayers could further break open a community’s liturgical imagination as they play with stressing varying motifs particular to a given rite. 

As the author mentions at the beginning, her intent is that the prayers “be used as an element of worship, but also as a formational tool.” (Intro, vi) As a reader, I see the potential for this, yet would also note that some context and brief guidelines could go a long way to further that formational piece. Periodically scriptural references are included as footnotes, which is helpful, and a few prayers include a framing sentence above the prayer itself. For example, the “Litany for Racism in the United States” includes the following note: “As events have occurred across the country, bringing to light deep wounds and scars of racism left by racism, genocide, and hatred, many congregations have looked for ways to address racism aloud together, pray together and work toward healing in their communities.” (p. 90) Just this brief note provides enough of a prompt to assist a reader with thinking about how and when they might want to include the prayer within their own community. Similarly, a contextual note reads like a rubric, such as is found in the Book of Common Prayer, and is something that readers from ‘higher’ liturgical tradition might look for in order to better understand how to locate these prayers in worship. In other words, context can aid in forming bridges across traditions. Defying dichotomies isn’t about changing “low” church culture so that their liturgies become more readable or recognizable to other traditions. Nor is it about fully maintaining the divides. What the evangelical-charismatic side of the house values is the fact that the Spirit is always speaking a new word, and we need prayers that are particular to time and place and people. What the liturgical side of the house offers is a deep well of tradition from which to draw images and motifs for the renewal of our prayer languages. This work of Fran Pratt is a beautiful example of how we can begin to experiment and play with our prayer languages, and in such a way as to sharpen our attention to the signs of the times and to what congregations need to make space for, especially in this season of change and tumult.

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