Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
When I was translating Schleiermacher, I was pleasantly surprised by his concern, in his pages on prayer, to tailor properly the requests that we address to God. In essence he said that if we address them to him in the name of Christ, we can no longer ask him for no matter what, but for what corresponds exactly to the teaching of Jesus. So no self-centred or unduly self-serving prayers, but “may your will be done”, which implies setting ourselves, to the best of our ability, to live and act according to the will of God, so far as we can understand it by reading the Gospels.
Another welcome surprise came when I was translating Zwingli’s very long commentary on the theses that were discussed during the Reformation disputation in Zurich in 1523: he devoted pages and pages to convincing his readers that they should address their prayers directly to God, and not to his saints nor to the beatified. For to resort to their intercession is to have no confidence in the Gospel of Christ, which assures us that we have direct access to the Father. It is to start from the idea that, as so often in everyday life, it is always better to support our approaches to the powerful of this world with the recommendations that we are able to secure from other figures who are supposed to have their ear. Let us be inspired, rather, by the example of these saints and blessed ones, and like them put all our trust in God since, as the epistle to the Hebrews says, we have “free access” to him.
Similarly, many Protestants from France or French-speaking Switzerland were surprised, on the arrival of the first Anglo-Saxon Methodist “missionaries” who came to re-evangelize French-speaking Europe after the turmoil caused by the Revolution and by Napoleon, to hear them address their prayers to Jesus and not directly to God the Father, as was the strict custom in the Reformed Churches.
Since then, this way of praying has spread as far as our liturgies of the Reformed tradition. Rightly? The casual visitor who hears the pastor or the worshipper on duty address the prayers of the assembly to the “Lord”, without further details, is entitled to wonder who it is: God the Father or Jesus the Christ? And to remember that Jesus himself advised the women and men who listened to him to address God in these terms: “Our Father in heaven …” He never suggested that we might address either God the Father or himself, even when “seated at the right hand of God”.
We can and must, of course, start from the idea that God, as a true Father and not a tyrant, accepts all prayers, even the most poorly formulated, even the most “pagan”. But it isn’t him who needs prayers, it’s us. Schleiermacher’s conviction, and Zwingli’s … and mine, is that, for our own good, we have an interest in properly tailored prayers which, in this way, help us to live.
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