That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Liturgy

Our Daily Bread

“Furthermore, by this order the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible…”

From the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549)

It was my privilege and delight last fall to teach an adult Sunday School class called “The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.” The syllabus for the course was nothing more than the Table of Contents found in the BCP, and the stated goal was to explore the ways in which the Prayer Book puts the words of Scripture on our lips, plants the teachings of Scripture deep in our hearts, and conforms the rhythms of our lives to Scripture’s great story.

In sixteen weeks of forty-five minute sessions, we covered a rough history of both the Bible and the Prayer Book, traced the arc of the Calendar of the Church Year, reflected on the roots and resources of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, processed through the Great Litany, and prayerfully analyzed some of the Collects. We walked with Christ in Holy Week through the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and we considered the two dominical sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. We confessed with the penitent, prayed with the sick, rejoiced in marriage, and mourned at burials. We even took time to look at the ordination rites and pondered the promises made by bishops, priests, and deacons.

All of these treasures, from the rare and wondrous to the regular and rote, at our fingertips! And all of them, from the simplest said Morning Prayer to the grandest celebration of the Easter Vigil, positively overflowing with Scripture. As my Baptist father always notices whenever he attends an Episcopalian liturgy, the Prayer Book is suffused with Biblical language and ideas.

Looking over the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms and considering the ways our services include and quote the Bible reminded me again and again of the original intentions of Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformers in developing the BCP in the first place. As the Preface to the first Prayer Book (quoted above, and found on page 866 of the 1979 American BCP) lays it out, the animating principles behind our Anglican liturgical tradition are a wonderful mixture of hopeful idealism and clear-eyed practicality, all focused on regular engagement with Scripture.

Cranmer envisioned a whole nation sanctified by daily encounter with God’s Word. He found inspiration in the traditions of the ancient fathers, who sought that “the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”

But Cranmer pursued this high-minded goal with a by means of a rigorous example of early modern reason and organization: “And for a readiness in this matter, here is drawn out a Kalendar for that purpose, which is plain and easy to be understood, wherein (so much as may be) the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order, without breaking one piece thereof from another.”

Intimacy with God’s written Word achieved through a sensible, achievable, liturgical pattern that is consistent with the most ancient traditions of the Church—what a marvelous expression of the reformed catholic ideal!

Subsequent editions of the BCP have modified and edited Cranmer’s original lectionary, of course. Many would argue (some quite convincingly) that those edits have not all been for the better. But the fact is that Anglican worship remains a dialogue between two books: the Bible which speaks in and through the services, and the Book of Common Prayer which organizes the reading of Scripture, quotes Scripture back to itself, and submerges worshipers in Scripture’s depths.

Reflecting on this great gift and heritage, I keep returning to a metaphor I used in the very first session of the Prayer Book class last fall: The Bible is a grocery bag, and the Book of Common Prayer is a cookbook.

The Bible is a big bag full of groceries. It has everything we need to be nourished spiritually. It includes lots of things that can be taken out and eaten raw–things that can feed us with little or no preparation. (In the first session of our class, I noted that the Psalms are like carrots. They’re essential as an ingredient chopped up and worked into recipes, but they’re also a great snack on their own.)

But the Bible also includes things that need some careful preparation before they’ll feed us. Some of the passages are like raw chicken: potentially the center of a delicious, healthful meal, but actually quite dangerous if not handled properly. At the end of the liturgical year and into the season of Advent, the Daily Office Lectionary took us through some of the great passages of Revelation. Much of that powerful book might fall into the raw chicken category. Certainly some of the Old Testament legal and prophetic texts fall into that category. There’s nourishment to be had in all of those things. But there’s also a great risk of spiritual sickness and profoundly unpleasant flavors if they’re not carefully prepared.

And that’s where the Book of Common Prayer comes in. The Prayer Book is our cookbook, taking from Scripture’s grocery bag both the good, simple things we always need (the Psalter, our salad course), and helping us to cook up healthy meals out of ingredients that would be dangerous out of the context of a well-made dish (i.e. the boneless, skinless chicken breast of Revelation, or the pork chop of Leviticus…ok, the metaphor may be breaking down here).

In the daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly selection and combination of passages, the Prayer Book nourishes us out of Scripture’s abundance. By balancing the steady diet of daily reading with a seasonal return to the “big stories,” the Prayer Book shapes and forms our hearts and imaginations around Scripture’s rich feast. By seasoning even the most challenging passages with the sanctifying salt of the Psalms and the great Canticles, the Prayer Book protects us from interpreting any part of Scripture in a way contrary to God’s purpose and plan.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray each time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Thank God for Scripture’s bounty, a feast that leads us to hunger for and be filled with Jesus, the Bread of Life.

They say “you are what you eat”. So take out your Prayer Book, open your Bible, and get cooking!

Evangelism, Authenticity, and the Book of Common Prayer

There’s a fair bit of hand-wringing these days about the general state of the Episcopal Church. We’re getting smaller, as everyone knows—though some sources tell us not to worry so much about this, and others actually see it as an advantage. There is, I understand, a “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” and they recently shared a letter with the Church outlining their massive—and largely structural—task. Many parishes are test-driving “seeker services,” and anything labeled “emergent” is supposed to help bring folks in the doors. Much of this is good and useful, insofar as it brings the question of evangelism to the fore.

But it occurred to me, as I washed dishes after Morning Prayer one day last week, that most of our efforts and new resources are profoundly wrongheaded. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer is the best evangelism tool we have—and that is primarily because it is not an evangelism tool. The Prayer Book is not a scheme or a system or a redesign or a clever new way to engage the culture. It is an invitation to authenticity, a blueprint for building a life. Prayer Book worship is really not all that interested in welcoming people or bringing them in the doors. That’s not what it’s for. And that’s why it is our last, best hope.

The Prayer Book is for the worship of Almighty God. Prayer Book worship is about shaping the assembled Body of Christ—and the lives of individual Christians within that Body—around the God who has revealed himself to us. That’s what the calendar of the Church Year accomplishes, beginning in Advent with the double-barreled promise of Christ’s coming, and then telling the story of his birth, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and empowering gift of the Holy Spirit, all peppered and enlivened and encouraged with the tales and prayers of the saints. That’s what the daily reading of the Psalms—the ancient prayer book of the Jewish people and the Christian Church, and the heart’s core of Morning and Evening Prayer—accomplishes, reflecting God’s self-revelation in all the victories, vanquishments, vagaries, and vacillations of human life. That’s what the unending rhythm of the Holy Eucharist accomplishes, in every season gathering the Church as a holy offering before the throne of grace, and then refreshing, renewing, and transforming us through God’s self-offering in the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s what the varied Pastoral Offices accomplish—in Baptism and Confirmation, in Marriage and Thanksgiving for a Child, in the Ministration to the Sick and the Burial of the Dead—all showing forth the light of God’s grace reflected in the milestones and moments of the lives he has drawn to himself.

[Derek Olsen has written extensively and eloquently on the shape, scope, and spirituality of the various Prayer Book liturgies in a series of blog posts at haligweorc.wordpress.com. His insights continue to broaden and deepen my thoughts in all these matters.]

In the Book of Common Prayer, all of this is profoundly God-oriented. Women and men are drawn into these patterns, practices, and stories like planets orbiting a star. But the Prayer Book is always fixed on the star itself: the brightness of God’s light shining at the center of the story, glorified in every pattern and practice, and glimmering in every person drawn within its ken.

Unfortunately, many parishes treat this God-ward focus as a liability and an embarrassment. To think of all the ways and times that I have seen Prayer Book services tweaked, touched-up, explained, or excused because of perceived challenges to potential visitors! The trouble is, visitors (potential or actual) do not want us to try to anticipate their possible problems. They want us to be ourselves. That, in turn, allows them to be themselves. And that takes us back to something I said earlier: the Prayer Book is an invitation to authenticity.

“Authenticity” is a very popular watchword right now. I’ve heard it said by folks who know, or who ought to know, or who claim to know (and sometimes those three are one) that for people in their 20s and 30s, authenticity is all that matters. Truth claims and doctrine are largely “out,” and radical authenticity is “in.”

I don’t go in whole-hog for that narrative. (Experience tells me that people actually want a lot more doctrine than we’re typically willing to give.) But I think that it touches on something important. We can no longer depend on folks joining our congregations because they agree with our positions (theological, social, environmental, political, or otherwise), or because they have always been Episcopalian. Potential newcomers, seekers, searchers, and the spiritual-but-not-religious are going to be more interested in who we show ourselves to be through our actions than what we claim to be through our words.

The reason for that shift, I think, is simple supply and demand: authenticity is valued because it is so scarce. People of my generation (and certainly people younger than my generation) are accustomed to conducting multiple lives on multiple platforms at the same time. They know how to maintain one persona on Facebook, another in their blog, another on their Twitter feed, and various others in face-to-face interactions with various groups of friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Inauthenticity—or perhaps, to put it more charitably, “fractured authenticity”—is their stock-in-trade. And they can smell it a mile away.

So what will these bloodhounds for inauthenticity think if they step into a church (and that’s already a very big “if”) and find that that church doesn’t follow its own rules, doesn’t use its own material, and doesn’t behave as if it’s doing anything of much importance? What will these eager, incisive people (who are much better at tweaking and trimming their identities to suit new contexts than any institution ever could be) think of a church attempting—in its lumbering, bureaucratic, committee-speak way—to seem hip, relevant, worldly, and “with-it”? Pity would be the best response we can hope for. Contempt might, I think, be more likely.

But what if, instead of pandering and toadying and trying really, really hard to get them to like us, we were faithful to the Prayer Book? What if we let the amazing resource moldering in our pew-racks shape us? What if it oriented our worship, our fellowship, and our life together—not just Sunday-to-Sunday, and not just the bits we like, but all of it, every day? What if we turned our eyes away from the people who may or may not be coming to worship—if we stopped worrying about what they will think if they do come, or whether they will like us if they happen to wander in, or whether they will feel welcome if they should decide to drop by—and instead let the Prayer Book fix the eyes of our hearts on the liturgy’s sole focus: the God who has come, the God who is present, the God who has welcomed us?

I tend to think that this would, paradoxically, transform our interaction with visitors, and for the better. Worrying less about the people we want to welcome would actually give us something to welcome them into, instead of begging them to join us for a shape-shifting, chameleonic, “just tell me what you want me to be!” experience.

That would open us up to the real possibility of rejection—the real (and, perhaps, likely) chance that many folks would decide that our way of being and doing in response to God’s self-revelation just doesn’t click for them. But how much better, as the saying goes, to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not? Infinitely more valuable than the chimerical quest to please every visitor would be the deep authenticity that is the fruit of a life oriented toward the Living God!

That authenticity, a mere by-product of the Prayer Book’s resolute God-ward gaze, is what makes evangelists: people who go into the world with news—triumphant news—to proclaim in every deed and in every word. Evangelism, real evangelism, is not a question of welcoming but of announcing—of showing forth. That’s what the Prayer Book equips us to do, by molding our lives around what God has done and is doing—by forming us around the Good News that God has drawn hear to us in the Incarnation; the Good News that God has conquered Sin and Death by the Cross of Calvary and the Resurrection of Jesus; the Good News that God is at work in our world even now, through the flawed, human, sometimes-inauthentic-and-yet-Holy-Ghost-filled Body of Christ called the Church.

So let’s stop worrying, and start worshiping. Let’s stop looking at what’s behind us—those open red doors at the west—wondering and worrying whether anyone is coming to church, and let’s start looking to what’s ahead of us—that glorious altar in the east, bright with the light of the rising sun—penitent, expectant, and joyful that the Lord of Glory comes to meet us—even us—in Word and Sacrament. And then, transformed by that encounter, confident in who and whose we are, let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God.