Nearly everyone prays, including 9 out of 10 Americans, suveys show. But Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove realize that traditional common prayer, today, represents a radical departure from the individualistic directions in which Americans have been pulling their prayers. Prosperity preachers, televangelists and other pop gurus latch onto Americans’ taste for individuality and turn prayer toward self-centered desires. Shane, Jonathan and their colleagues realize that the true power of prayer lies in uniting people through the seasons and across communities that circle the globe. They have found that united prayer is a way to transform entire cultures, or to help a single neighborhood survive tragedy. That’s why their 600-page Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals includes special prayers for all-too-common experiences, like a tragic occasion when someone is killed in a neighborhood. Throughout the year, their prayers celebrate contemporary and classic saints.
Now, in 2012, they have added the Common Prayer Pocket Edition to make this practice more portable. As they say in the book:
“This little version will open up some new possibilities that may be trickier with a big ole 600-page book, like being able to take it to class or to work or on your bike or on a hike with a few friends.” You may wonder at that word “ole,” but that’s Shane’s Southern drawl coming through in that personal preface. Read our other two stories in this series to understand more about Shane’s work:
Part 1: Why Shane Claiborne & Woody Guthrie want Jesus as President (and why Shane’s multimedia kit from Zondervan is a valuable toolbox).
Part 2: ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Shane about the Jesus campaign.
Part 3 (here): David interviews Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about Common Prayer.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH SHANE CLAIBORNE AND
JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE ON COMMON PRAYER
DAVID: One of the first reactions I get, when I carry a copy of your Common Prayer book with me, is this: “Who do these guys think they are in claiming to have invented common prayer?” The idea of daily hours for prayer goes back to ancient Judaism within our own religious tradition. Christians have encouraged formal hours of prayer for at least 1,500 years. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is approaching its 500th anniversary. In more recent decades, I’ve reported on Phyllis Tickle’s work in reintroducing ecumenical fixed-hour prayer. So, first, explain how you see your book’s place within that long tradition.
SHANE: Yes, there is a long tradition and a whole community of people around this work we are doing. We knew full well, from the start of preparing our book, that we were building on the work of others. The more recent effort to encourage everyone to pray in common involves so many people. We’ve got Catholics, Celtic Christians and people like Phyllis Tickle. One of the first things we did was to get Phyllis involved in our work. Phyllis agreed and so did Andy Raine of the Northumbria Community, which has been doing Celtic daily prayer. Richard Rohr got involved. Mennonites got involved. We’ve worked with Orthodox Christians. Many people worked with us to free up permissions and copyrights so we could publish the book. We had about 30 people in one of our first meetings on Common Prayer and we had an advisory team on top of that. Jonathan and I feel like we’re directing a symphony more than writing a book. In the book, we list people who helped from so many different traditions. Phyllis’s earlier books on Divine Hours are an incredibly important contribution to this whole movement.
JONATHAN: What Phyllis recognized, and I think it was truly an inspiration, is that the church has had prayer manuals going back centuries. But most of them are extremely complicated to use. To crack open some of those classic guides to prayer you need a degree in liturgy. The Divine Hours—the volumes Phyllis created—were both very accessible and very usable for individuals in their daily devotional life. Her work was a great gift in understanding both the big challenges of what we were trying to do and the logistical issues we faced in dealing with all of these liturgical materials from so many different sources.
PRAYING IN A GLOBAL MOVEMENT FOR TRANSFORMATION
DAVID: Clearly, you see other major figures in this movement as collaborators rather than competitors. You’re trying to pull together all the threads. But, more than that, you’re trying to make Christians aware that prayer isn’t a self-fulfilling practice for us as individuals, right? Prayer is about connecting with people around the world who are praying along with you. Do I have that right?
SHANE: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. There’s an understanding of common prayer that I think we’re seeing grow, more and more. When I travel, I hear from people who are deeply touched that our common prayer takes time to remember some of the terrible tragedies that have happened around the world. The more I travel, the more I see how important it is to each population to see that their history of the good and the bad is remembered by others. And we’re not just remembering the bad. We’re remembering each other’s heroes, too. We are learning each other’s songs. We are reminding ourselves that we are a global family praying together. We’re all trying to live in the light of the history that shines through the biblical narrative.
DAVID: Let’s pick one example from your prayer books. At one point in the cycle, you remember the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. As a journalist, I’ve been to Manzanar and I’ve reported nationally on the legacy of the detention. How did this milestone wind up in your book?
SHANE: The simple answer to your question is: Someone on our advisory team told us that this is a date we dare not forget. We must remember this to truly honor a history of a large population of people. That’s how the whole process unfolded. Look through the prayer books. You’ll see lots of dates. You’ll see names of Native Americans remembered. This was an open-sourcing project among so many people. You know, like Wikipedia? We may add more stuff, someday, when we come out with a Version 2.0 of the big book. We continue to follow the leading of the Spirit and we continue hearing new ideas.
But I’ve got to say this: We’re remembering both the good and the bad in our history together in this world. This isn’t an attempt to make people feel bad every morning and to force them to go stick their fingers in a wall socket. We chose these things we included as a way to point people toward the possibility of transformation even while remembering the great pain we have experienced as humanity.
COMMON PRAYER: THE GIFTS OF CELTIC CHRISTIANS
DAVID: ReadTheSpirit has reported a lot, over the years, about Celtic Christian teachers like John Philip Newell and the importance of their work within Christianity—a contribution that is far larger than their numbers. You tapped into that tradition through Andy Raine and Northumbria.
JONATHAN: These folks were talking about “new monasticism” years before we were around. We didn’t realize how much they had done until we started talking about our own ideas and we realized that they were much further along in this whole process. The Celtic tradition seems to be much better suited than American Christianity for cultures where the church has drastically declined. That’s the case in much of Europe. In talking to Andy, he reminds us that our context is recovering an ancient tradition of evangelism in a world that has largely forgotten this wisdom. Here in the United States, we still have a lot more of the Church around us. We have a lot more vibrant congregational life in our neighborhoods. That’s a big difference between the Celtic revival in other parts of the world and the work we’re doing here, but they have contributed a lot to our work together.
COMMON PRAYER: ABOUT COMMUNITY AS MUCH AS INDIVIDUALS
DAVID: We recently published a fresh interview with Iona’s famous musician and hymn writer John Bell. One of the strong points John made was that he isn’t some lone wolf creating music and dropping it, fully finished, into the world. Everything he does, including the completion of new hymns, is done in community. That’s a radically different idea than our American culture that idolizes the lone wolf, right?
JONATHAN: I would say the same kind of thing John Bell is saying about music when I talk about our process of developing common prayer. One of the reasons we feel great about promoting it is that this is not self-promotion at all. It is the product of many communities working over many years. It grew out of our desire to root our faith in ancient practice, but also to express our needs and our experiences in the realities of today’s world. This has become a resource that draws on the best of our tradition but also speaks to the experience of our communities now.
For example, because we were praying in neighborhoods like those in which we live, we knew that our prayer book had to have a prayer for when someone is killed in your neighborhood. This happens a lot more frequently than we would like, but none of the prayer books we found in our research had anything like that. Yet that’s at the heart of our experience today. We need resources for that kind of all-too-common experience.
DAVID: That may shock some people. Prayer for a murdered neighbor?
SHANE: Hey, a question like that tells me you don’t live in a big city.
DAVID: Actually, I worked for years as the religion writer for Detroit’s morning newspaper and I’ve reported on lots of candle-lit vigils and street corners where heaps of flowers and teddy bears show up after a murder. So, yes, I do understand the value of that special prayer you added.
COMMON PRAYER: THE GIFT OF GOOD LITURGY
JONATHAN: One of the things we learned is that the church has important ways of opening up a space in a community where tragedy strikes. The church can open space for both silence and for words. That’s true when important things happen in the life of a community—both bad things and good things, too. In our book, we try to help people formalize a structure of good words to say in the space that opens up after something big happens. People do circle and pray on street corners afterward and we’re helping people hallow that space and invite everyone to participate by providing thoughtful words. That’s the gift of good liturgy: We draw on the words and the wisdom of the whole church, including the wisdom of people who have lived in generations long before us.
SHANE: The problem is that the Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul stuff may feel good, you know, but none of that typical stuff helps when somebody in your neighborhood is murdered. Then, where do you turn? Where do you look for words to speak? We’ve heard from people all around the world, telling us that this is their reality. People need a way to connect the sometimes really hard reality in which they wake up each morning with the movement of the Spirit. They need to find words that can reconnect them with each other. That is the gift of good liturgy, yeah. We’re not talking about fluffy stuff. We’re talking about real life for people around the world. Our prayers should be said like the daily breath that gives us life.
COMMON PRAYER: WE ARE NOT LEAVING THE CHURCH
DAVID: As we draw our interview to a close, this is a good point to remind readers of one of the most radical aspects of your ministry, writing and teaching. You’re not calling people to leave existing churches in the dust and go establish new ones. That marks you as quite different from a lot of restless young preachers out there. Your work is focused on revitalizing the church. Have I got that right?
SHANE: Certainly the institutional church is ill. It’s hemorrhaging young people at an astronomical rate. There are financial bankruptcies in many parts of the church. No question about that. But we see the possibility of reimagining and revitalizing the church. For example, in my own neighborhood, it’s considered normal for pastors to be bi-vocational. One of our local pastors is also an electrician. Look at the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, spreading across so many lives without any paid staff as it spreads through communities.
Yes, like you’re saying, in some ways we are very old-fashioned in our commitment to the institutional church. We’re not church planters. We are community planters and, as we work in our communities, we join local churches. Jon joined a historic Missionary Baptist church in his neighborhood. In our neighborhood, some of us attend Mass at local Catholic churches. Others attend Pentecostal churches. There is real value in these local congregations. For me, a lot of it is the value of the sacraments we share. In neighborhoods like ours, the churches provide stability.
Certainly, this common prayer project has taken years of energy, but we see it not as a way to leave our individual churches, but as a movement we hope to see permeate the larger Church. I’m going to Willow Creek again this year and I see that as a way to help connect with a post-denominational mega-church that’s wanting to reconnect with good liturgy. That’s promising! We know the Church wasn’t born 200 years ago. It’s encouraging to see some of the post-denominational churches actually wanting to reconnect with the story and the prayer life of the larger Church.
DAVID: We hear so much from writers and scholars about the problems churches face. It’s great to talk to you two about all the hope you see out there!
SHANE: Hey, somehow Jesus’s reputation has survived all the embarrassing things that Christians have done in his name. Jesus still has a really great reputation and the Spirit is still moving. I’ve got a lot of hope for a generation that takes Jesus seriously, once again.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.