May 16 2021



I wouldn’t say I actually spend an awful lot of time reading prayers, but when I do read them, it is usually because I need to, and I nearly always end up enjoying them. I don’t know how many of us read prayers at home, but I feel sure that those of us who do find it not only spiritually helpful, but enjoyable as well in a peaceful sort of way.

I am sure that if, for some reason, our prayers were not included in our Sunday service, on zoom or in chapel, many of us would notice their absence and miss them, perhaps even think the service incomplete without them. One of the prayerbooks I use quite frequently for services is called The Language of the Heart, by Arthur Powell Davies.

In my first ministry in Sheffield, one member of my congregation was very ill at the time and eventually died of her illness. I had picked up a handful of copies of Language of the Heart at a recent GA Annual Meetings, and I left a copy with this lady on one of my visits.

After she passed away her daughter surprised me by saying what a good degree of comfort she had derived from the book. I was pleased of course: it is rare in the ministry to know the effectiveness of what you do. But what struck me forcibly was how the secret ministry of prayer will work, even across continents and across time (A Powell Davies was born in England but spent the years of his ministry in America).

Some prayerbooks are not specifically Unitarian of course, but are nevertheless acceptable to Unitarians.  One of these might be Great Souls at Prayer, which is (I believe) quite well-known. My copy dates from 1929. The first edition came out is 1898, and between then and 1929 it was reprinted 32 times.

Great Souls has a prayer for every day of the year. For an example, this is from Robert Collyer an American Unitarian minister who was born in Yorkshire in 1823: “This robe of flesh is thy gift to thy child, and when it is worn out, thou wilt clothe him again.” It is a wonderful expression of faith and a profound sense of comfort.

There are great prayers we all love, aren’t there: “lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…” “to labour and not to ask for any reward…” “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace…”, the prayer of Jesus of course, the 23rd Psalm.

There are some prayers we remember from our schooldays, which will always have a special significance for us, and some from childhood which our parents taught us to say at bedtime when we were infants: “Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child…”

Prayers are meaningful even if they do not conform to our more sophisticated theology as adults. I have a friend who will pick up the phone every Easter Sunday and quietly sing a verse of “There is a green hill far away…”not because she is particularly orthodox, but because it was part of her childhood Easter.

Perhaps you have come across a little book called A Minute of Prayer. It says it is a book for all faiths, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, for every purpose and every occasion. An example from it is this one: “God bless my enemies, make them my friends, give them to know the joy and peace of love.” That was from a Christian Scientist.

Here is a line from a Jewish prayer: “We thank thee for thy manifold blessings, and we would pray that somehow we might be found worthy of all thy bounties.”

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic, wrote this: “What else can I do, a lame old man, but sing hymns to God? If I were a nightingale, I would do the nightingale’s part; If I were a swan, I would do as a swan. But now I am a rational creature, and I ought to praise God: this is my work, and I do it, nor will I desert my post, so long as I am allowed to keep it. And I exhort you to join me in this same song.”

Prayers from across the centuries, from the times both before and after Jesus; from faiths across the world, those who have known of Christianity and those who have not; voices of men and women speaking out from their own particular circumstances and from their own day and time, all in search, reaching out to the creator and sustainer of life, to that which exists beyond time and space, beyond theology and beyond denomination. How similar the voices of those men and women sound. They praise and pray just as we do, each in their own different language, using different words to say much the same thing.

I have another little book called Closet Prayers, edited by Thomas Sadler, and produced over a hundred years ago. I see the price of it was one shilling. Opening it at the Contents page, I see the prayers listed. Here are some of the titles: morning and evening prayers as you would expect; then summer evening prayer; amidst beautiful scenery; against being disturbed by little troubles; harmony with God’s will; rest in faith; light from God; in time of sickness; for a friend who is ill…, and so on, ending with grace before meals.

The titles in themselves convey something very comforting.For a motto Thomas Sadler has put a quotation from St Bernard: “Think not lightly of thy prayers, for he who heareth them thinketh not lightly of them…”

In his introduction Sadler adds, “To those who may use this book, I would now most earnestly say, — use it only so far as the prayers are really your own. If necessary change words, modify expressions, add or omit passages; and do not let the use of any form incapacitate you for clothing your offering to God… in your own words.”

If we can remember the simplicity of our prayers as children, and make our prayers as direct as that, we shall not go far wrong.

“Think not lightly of thy prayers.”

We have come together, O God, in the solitude of each and the fellowship of all. As we have not lost our solitude in coming together, so let us not lose our togetherness when we are apart. And let the prayers we have prayed with bowed heads be still with us when we stand upon our feet and face the world.  Amen.

[Arthur Powell Davies.]

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period