URC :: Spirituality

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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

A different kind of prayer meeting

Sheila Maxey and Jenny Mayo
4 August 2018

A while back, with the support of the minister and elders of Brentwood URC, two of us started a twice-monthly time of prayer called “Sacred Space”. During its long gestation period, certain features which would characterise this prayer time emerged:

  • its length would be clearly defined — 45 minutes;
  • it would mostly be silent, with quiet Taizé music for half the time and complete silence for the rest;
  • the opening and closing liturgies would be brief, not in traditional language — and always the same, apart from the Gospel reading (with perhaps a brief reflection) and the Psalm for the coming Sunday;
  • there would be various prayer stations around the church so that we could physically move from thanksgiving to confession, to intercession etc.;
  • there would be no refreshments or discussion.

We are very fortunate in our church building. It is a nineteenth-century chapel with the present beautiful worship area upstairs in what used to be the gallery, with the middle filled in. The result is a saucer-shaped space, with the old pews along the sides and chairs in the lower space in the middle. Because a dancing school uses both hall and church, the chairs are all stacked at the sides on a Thursday evening at 8.30pm — so we have space and can set up the stations as we wish.

The thanksgiving station centres on the pulpit. A long white Sudanese cloth covers the pulpit and blue-tacked on, in bold letters, are various texts, for example “The heavens are telling the glory of God”, and “Bless the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name”. A table stands in front with an empty vase and tea lights burning at each side. On the floor, to one side, is a vase with single flowers, usually roses. We are invited to stand there in silent thanksgiving and then to express our gratitude by putting a flower in the vase.

The confession (or laying down of burdens) station is up a couple of steps towards the back. Another table stands there, with a blue cloth, two big candles in blue glass holders and a bowl of water (actually the bowl from the baptismal font). There are chairs there, and on the floor a dish of stones, and two texts: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name: you are mine” and “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.” There we are invited to hold a stone for a while and then release it into the water, letting go our burdens, accepting God’s forgiveness.

The intercession station is over at one side where a pew is draped with a Cafod cloth (I think they used to be called “hunger cloths”) with a black crucified Christ and many figures around depicting Biblical stories expressed in modern events. There is a flat dish of sand with a thick candle burning in the middle, and texts on either side such as “ Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and “God so loved the world…” There is a basket of thin candles and we are invited to light one and stick it into the sand. There are several chairs placed there.

A rather special station emerged when we noticed that the lobby to the lift created a little side-chapel for one. There we place one chair and a small table with a candle and a copy of Jean Parker’s sculpture The enfolding. There is only one text there — “for I am convinced that neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

We are currently experimenting with a new station in the lantern window area which protrudes at one end of the church. The plaque for the re-dedication of the building in 1982 is there and reads “To the glory of God this house was rebuilt that His light may shine out on this town.” We have put a chair covered in a gold cloth below the plaque, with a large candle and three texts — “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”, “Jesus said: I am the light of the world” and “Jesus said: You are the light of the world” We have to sit on cushions on the platform edge for that station.

The two of us spend 30–45 minutes setting up and 30 minutes dismantling — but we both find that part of our “sacred space”. Only four people, at present, come with regularity and they can rarely all come on the same night. It is a town-centre church with parking difficulties so it is not surprising that not many would want to drive a distance on a dark winter’s night for the sake of 45 minutes. We have leafleted the city centre houses and flats but it would actually be quite a brave person who would come cold into a small gathering like that. Once a young woman did come, was clearly shocked by the small numbers and how exposed she would feel, and retreated. From the beginning we wanted to make it clear to the committed core of the church membership that no-one should consider coming just to support a new venture, but only if this seemed something he or she wanted and needed.

We are not dismayed by the small numbers because we need that space ourselves. In any case, with present numbers we can move from one station to another without any sense of interrupting each other and so can relax into the silence. Only the person who has to keep an eye on the time for putting off the music and then putting it on again to signal it is time for the closing liturgy cannot completely relax.

One regular attender comes from a hectic teaching job and busy family life and she says that even her heart beat slows down as she moves deeply into prayer. The flowers of thanksgiving are then left to be incorporated into the Sunday flowers, as all our prayers form part of the life of this local church.