There really is no such thing as private prayer, if by “private” we mean “cut off from” the corporate body of God’s people in the local church. And yet, our natural inclination as moderns seems to assume that very thing, namely, that my private prayers are just between me and God, perhaps reflecting what Charles Taylor refers to as the ‘punctual self’, whose radical independence makes for a self that is merely a ‘point’ in blank space, an abstraction from community, place, and the other.
The daily offices (morning/evening prayer) of the Prayer Book, even when used as private prayer, are not strictly separable from the corporate gathering of the local parish church. Since the prayers are spiritual offerings to God, even in private these offerings are not merely for the individual or for the individual’s family, friends, and neighbors, but for those with whom one communes at the Lord’s Table on Sundays (way back when these were also one’s neighbors). If the prayers were only for me and in no way concerned my fellow parishioners, then they would be worthless to me. They would not be pleasing to God who has placed me in a local visible part of the body of Christ in the shepherding care of his ministers. And, they would be of little value for me personally, since I don’t want to be alone – “though none go with me, I still will follow” though true, is certainly not the ideal – and I don’t want God to see me as a world to myself, separated from the saints of ages past and present. What good would it do me if God decided one day to only answer my daily private prayers and not those of my fellow parishioners? To pray “O God make speed to save us!” would make no sense at all if that were the case.
As Bishop Anthony Sparrow says in his comments on the Prayer Book (1662):
If a Church may not be had, “THE PRIEST SHALL SAY IT PRIVATELY,” says the same Rubr. 2. And good reason; for God’s worship must not be neglected or omitted for want of a circumstance. It is true, the Church is the most convenient place for it, and adds much to the beauty of holiness. And he that should neglect that decency, and despising the Church should offer up the public worship in private, should sin against that Law of God that says, “Cursed is he that having a better Lamb in his flock, offers up to God a worse”: For God Almighty must be serv’d with the best we have, otherwise we despise him. He that can have a Church, and will offer up the holy service in a worse place, let him fear that curse: but if a Church cannot be had, let him not fear or omit to offer up the holy Service in a convenient place in private, having a desire to the Church, looking towards the Temple in prayer, 2 Chron. 6. 28. for it will be accepted, according to that equitable rule of S. Paul, 2 Cor. 8. 12. “If there be a willing mind, God accepts according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.”
Let every Lay-man say this Morning and Evening Office, his Psalter, leaving out that which is peculiar to the Priest, Absolution, and solemn benediction; and let him know that when he prays thus alone, he prays with company, because he prays in the Churches communion, the Common prayer and vote of the Church. But let not the Priest of all others, fail to offer this service of the Congregation. This public worship, this savour of rest, though by himself in private looking towards the Temple, “Lifting up his hands toward the mercy seat of the holy Temple,” Psal. 84. that is, having in his soul a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord, praying with David, that he may go unto the Altar of God, the God of our joy and gladness, to offer up his service there, and it will be acceptable.
As Bp. Sparrow affirms, private prayers are acceptable to God because they are accompanied with a desire to go to the altar of God in one’s local church. This is because our individual prayers are tinted with the light of holiness reflected in the elect of God. The visible church is the gathering of God’s chosen people and the only church that I know (as a worshiping body) are those with whom I worship at my local parish. In other words, even when my prayers are personal, they are not merely for me but for me-as-part-of-this-parish. Since baptism brings us into a corporate gathering of believers, and Holy Communion unites us more closely with those believers – to whom Christ said, if you have anything against your brother, leave your gift at the altar and go seek reconciliation – then our local identity is a local-corporate identity. Whether I’m praying for the health of my child, my wife, or for a particular sin of my own, God does not see me only. Of course, the primary lens through which God sees me is Christ and all the saints (and angels) in heaven, but he also sees me in union with the local expression of Christ’s body (and the diocese!) where he has placed me, and he is pleased to accept my individual and private prayers as a part of that corporate gathering of believers. This corporate element of private prayer was true of ancient Israel as it is for us today. What happens to one part of the body affects the whole. The prayers of all the saints on earth ascend together as holy incense before the heavenly altar of God.
For this reason, as Bp. Sparrow says, it is more than appropriate for us to pray privately the same prayers that we would pray together in parish worship. For example, as we say in the daily offices:
Minister: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Together: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
Answer. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Minister. Praise ye the Lord.
Answer. The Lord’s Name be praised.
The plural “our” and “we” should be said in private as well, just as Christ tells us to ask for “our daily bread,” in order that we might have a daily reminder that our private prayers are always partly corporate, never absolutely private. The corporate language of our private prayers are the material of our daily sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and like any sacrifice, our prayer is an offering of our whole person (locally sourced!) in a community of sacrificial love. And for that reason, even when the members of the church are apart from one another, we continue to offer up our prayers and our lives for one another. For, as our Blessed Savior has taught us, in words that ring true about our daily sacrifices of prayer, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).