Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Conference on ‘Prayer’

The Evangelical-Orthodox Discussion Group, which works under the auspices of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, Oxford, met on the 10th October in St. Gregory and St. Macrina House (Oxford), which is the centre of the Fellowship. The day conference analysed the theme of ‘Prayer’. The day consisted of two talks, the first given by Dr Tim Grass, giving an Evangelical approach, and Fr. Stephen Platt (Secretary of the Fellowship), examining the Orthodox view.

Dr Tim Grass began the day analysing the Evangelical perspective of this theme. He explained that prayer is merely the fact of talking with God, of communicating with God. He believes that there should be a naturalness with prayer, expressing a personal relationship with God. Evangelicals don’t follow set forms. Spontaneity equals spirituality; it is preferable. However, this reality has altered lately; therefore, Evangelicals use set forms. Nonetheless, the speaker explained that there are not many Evangelical sources on prayers, because maybe they are not taken that serious, on this theme. How does prayer work? How do we pray? What happens with unanswered prayers? There is a certain hagiographic and pragmatic approach by Evangelicals on prayer. The speaker then gave four hall marks in regards to the Evangelical movement.
a.       Bible centred. Personal Bible reading is important and central, that is why they know scripture well. However, this leads to incomprehensibility, despite the fact that they can quote scripture very well.  (Despite this, it is apparent that there is a decline of biblical literacy in modern Evangelicals).
b.      Cross centred. Soul meditation of Jesus Christ, which is central to the prayer process. The only mediator is Jesus; that is why they resist in invoking any prayer to the Saints.
c.        Personal conversion to Jesus Christ. The moment they pray they become true Christians.
d.      Prayer and activism.
The speaker looked into a number of Evangelical hymns, emphasising the importance prayer has for the Evangelical Christian. Dr Tim spoke about the types of prayer which exist today:
a.       Personal Prayer (i.e. quiet time), where the Evangelicals read the Bible and pray. This is practiced anywhere. It is best observed in the morning. This coincides with the idea of Prayer Warriors, i.e. those who pray for others. (Quiet time has, however, currently declined).
b.      Family Prayer. This consists of a Bible reading, followed by a comment.
c.       Prayer Meeting. This is a distinctive Evangelical gathering.
The speaker identified that Evangelicalism is at a crisis point, in regards to prayer. Evangelicals seem to be against any practice observed by the High Church, such as incense, despite the fact that it is a practice found in the Bible.
It was interesting, at least for the Orthodox listeners, that many Evangelicals do not say the Lord’s Prayer, since it is a set prayer. However, this is an on-going dispute within Evangelical circles, since the Lord’s Prayer is found in the New Testament, established by Jesus Christ himself.
The second talk was given by Fr. Stephen Platt. He began his talk by explaining personal details from his upbringing. He gave the Orthodox approach to prayer, examining three areas:
-          What do Orthodox faithful think prayer is?
-          Why do we pray?
-          How do we pray?
There are various definitions of prayer. For the Orthodox, talking with God is part of it. We work, we walk, and we are with God. It’s not an intellectual practice. It has a therapeutic effect. The fact that we are with God comprises part of the Theology of Incarnation. Through this reality we are also incarnated. The understanding of the human person relates to the understanding of prayer, where we have the praying of the whole person.
Orthodox prayer is maximalist and multisensory. They use the whole being towards Christ. We pray for our own salvation.  However, we are not saved alone; we reach salvation as the Body of the Church. This consists of an antinomy. We have the individual vs. cooperate prayer. Fr. Stephen explained that alones is the definition of Hell; it is the opposite of the Trinity, of communion, i.e. the nature of God, which is a relation, where they are mutually indwelling in each other. We don’t pray alone because we are not saved alone.  But even when we pray alone, we are never alone, since we are part of the Church.
The Orthodox prayer has a Liturgical nature. All Orthodox prayer is directly or indirectly Eucharistic, which lies in the heart of Orthodox life, of Liturgical worship. The Eucharist is the central defining moment as the identity of His Body. For the Orthodox, all prayer is sacramental; as Schmemann claimed, ‘the world as Sacrament’.

Fr. Stephen continued by explaining that we cannot limit God’s grace to 7 sacraments; it is not logical. The Greeks use the word Mysterion, which has two meanings:
a.       Mystery
b.      Secret plan of Salvation, drawing humanity back to Himself.
He later followed Dr Tim’s analysis. Is the Orthodox prayer Bible centred? It ought to be. In formal prayer scripture is central. The centrality of the Bible is evident in the Church, where on the Alter Table (the Throne of God) we place the Gospel, which symbolises Jesus Christ. Orthodox prayers a heavily based on Scripture, the Psalms being the main ‘skeleton’ of Orthodox prayers.
Orthodox prayer as Cross Centred. For the Orthodox it is a way God comes close to sinful humanity. It is seen and understood as part of the Resurrection. The Cross and the Resurrection are bound together. In Orthodox hymnology the Resurrection is never eclipsed by the Cross; and the Cross is never alone, without the Resurrection.
Conversion. This takes place during Baptism. Conversions is evident through conversion, i.e. repentance. Activism. To be active does not mean that they are vocal. Actions speak louder than words.  The faithful do the sign of the cross at certain occasions; at moments which speak to them. The words they hear are taken into the logical understanding; doing the sign of the cross is the outward expression of the esoteric understanding of prayer.
How do the practice prayer? For the Orthodox the Church building is both Temple (Ναός) and Synagogue. Εκκλησία is really the Synagogue. The Ναός is the House of God.  Orthodox people also practice prayer at home. It is evident that the monastic movement has had a massive affect to Orthodox prayer. The personal prayers are like condensed liturgical prayers. However, they do pray with their own words. There is space for silence.
Fr. Stephen then analysed the Jesus Prayer. This prayer is taken by 2 verses. The first is ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God’, while the second part is taken by the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Luke 18: 13).
The Church is a generator of prayer. In theory we are activists, but in practice we are pacifist. Orthodox people do not know their bible. The Orthodox don’t give the Bible verses when talking. There are numerous examples of how Saints quoted the Bible without having read it. This happens because they live the life of the Bible.

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