Prayer in public spaces

The lorry bumps across the raised zebra crossing, clattering chains against the empty skip as the driver starts a busy day of delivering containers around the area. There is a bus idling at a stop nearby. The smell of diesel-fumes from the hard-pressed engine floods the pavement where I’m sat: at a street-side a cafe, in a beautiful West Yorkshire village. An adult with a pushchair negotiates their way between cars stopped on the crossing; backed up by the bus in one direction, and the mini-roundabout in the other. The sounds are immersive; the bus engine is making a disproportionate amount of rumble, and the skip-lorry adding a dented drum clang to the cacophony. Like Richard Scarry’s “Busy Busy Town”, there is a lot to take in. My sensations are overloaded, and not just by the carcinogenic diesel fumes, but because I’m trying to be aware to the concerns of the community this morning: school, shopping, work, finance, health, hope, fear… love.

O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise

There is a rich tradition of liturgical prayer in the Church of England, calling upon holy scripture to give us timeless words prayed by thousands before us. We lift our voice with a great cloud of witnesses: ordained ministers are expected to pray the ‘daily office’ in church, after tolling a bell to call the faithful. There is also a rich tradition of no one coming to join them. Church buildings may indeed be sacred places, liminal places, ‘thin’ places… but often enough they are lonely places.

Once upon a time I used to pray alongside my priest in church. At least, I did when I was working from home. I had a job which took me across the globe, and was often away for several days. My Vicar introduced me to the Daily Prayer App, from the Church of England, and that enabled me to follow morning prayer no matter where I was in the world, regardless of time-zone. Although we were physically separated by time and space, we learned that we were alongside each other spiritually as we both began:

let us pray with one heart and mind

With experience, I began to pray in airport lounges, train stations, hotel rooms, bus stations and cafes. I discovered that any secular place could be spiritual if there was someone praying there. I learned that God was not calling me back to church to pray, instead God was sending me out to pray. Obviously I still went to church whenever at home, but while away, I felt connected to church via this prayer-based relationship with my priest.

I’m now a parish priest myself, and I continue my discipline of praying the Daily Office. I have found a rhythm of prayer which both respects our sacred spaces, and facilitates my discipline of praying in the world. I love the concept of being a visible priestly presence, so twice a week I find a public space in which to pray the daily office.

Let us pray…
* for the day and its tasks
* for the world and its needs
* for the Church and her life

My theological understanding of ‘prayer in public spaces’ has evolved since the early days. If I wanted quiet I would retreat to the empty church where I could focus my attention on Christ, and Him alone. Now, however, I know that Christ is with me, and together we witness the chaotic jumble of people’s lives.

  • I hold before God my love for these communities, and I’m reminded that God was here first.
  • I plead for them, and I’m reminded that God knew them even before they were born.
  • I pray that God will speak to them, and I’m reminded that I didn’t always listen to God.
  • Together we care for them.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Someone will – on a surface level – appear to interrupt prayer. And yet I have found a new understanding, one in which their apparent interruption becomes part of prayer: all and everyone become prayer from the initial ‘O Lord’, to the final ‘amen’. And so, morning prayer in public spaces embraces the parent and child searching for a safe way to cross the road, respects the hopes and fears of the lorry driver, seeks the transformation of the world from toxic to fresh… everything is held before God…

…and at the end, I am still in your presence.

Copyright material is included from, Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000) (including the Psalter as published with Common Worship); copyright © The Archbishops’ Council. Common Worship texts are available at