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Hallo again to all.

'Family prayers'. Does that phrase mean anything to anyone now, outside an historical context? Far beyond a scrabbled grace at the beginning of a meal — and does any family actually sit down daily for a meal any more? — formal family prayers followed, more or less, the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. E. M. Forster, in 1939, wrote this* about family prayers in his great-grandfather's households.

We get the aroma of a vanished society, the sense of well-to-do people on their knees, the solid chairs into which the elbows dig, the antimacassared backs into which the foreheads rest, the voice of the master of the house, confronting his Maker in a monotone, and, if the hour be morning, the great virgin breakfast table, clothed all in white like a bride. For three generations, it was a problem to religious Englishmen whether the breakfast dishes should come in before prayers and so get cold, or should come in after, which meant a wait, and an unpleasant sense of hanging in a void between two worlds.

I do not know which decision my great-grandfather took, but [during prayers one morning] his daughter Marianne read the same passage out of the Bible again and again, because she was paralysed by the sight of the cat eating the ham, and felt unable to stop either the cat or herself.

Family prayers went out with the family. When the children were limited and the servants went into factories and death-duties cut property to pieces, these daily gatherings of piety and plenty came to a natural end.

It is easy to see the absurdist side of the activity, as Forster has nicely captured, but still those prayers connected 'piety and plenty' with the demands of daily life, something we in our time may have lost.

No doubt we pray, all of us, in various ways and at various times of the day. We are, more or less, observant of Sundays and the obligation to be in church on that day. We do our best to weave into our secular lives (as dispiriting as that phrase is) the sense of God's presence. And surely Lent sharpens and heightens our attempts to make more real and vivid 'our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim'.

But families are fractionated and frayed, far more now than they were when Forster wrote in 1939. There are many households of one. Our jobs intrude far more into our lives. And our digital distractions have fractured time into bits and bytes. The idea of encouraging a family, however defined, to fall on to its knees twice a day for prayer seems as unlikely as an effort to bring back antimacassars.

Still something powerful remains, beyond the antiquarian, about the small intimate circle of a family beginning a day with intentional prayer, before heading off to the bar or the bank, to Top Shop or Starbucks. If a family is one person, is the idea more likely? If a family is flatmates or residents in a care home, is the idea more probable? Kneeling into a chair probably won't find favour now, but does the posture of our bodies help make prayer more intentional?

Perhaps merely the whiff of what seems a more pious past has us ruminating on all this as mid-Lent draws near. Was the past more pious by nature? Or was piety more enabled because of those nameless servants, pulled from the kitchen and the scullery? After all, if breakfast, cold or not, is waiting on the table spread with its white linen cloth, that's a far different matter than heading to the kitchen to boil eggs. Add children who must be off to school and the entire thing begins to seem complex and unmanageable. Church on Sunday may be the best anyone — or any family — can do now. Let us know what you think.

'The Clapham sect rose from its knees, ate, and then made money — made as much as it ever could, and then gave as much as it could away. . . There was an age when to get rich and to be good were harmonious', wrote Forster.

Will that ever come again?

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

3 March 2013


*In the essay 'Henry Thornton', found in Forster's book of collected articles and miscellaneous writings called Two Cheers for Democracy (1951).

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