Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Generous Obedience to the Mind of the Church

Today I came across an excerpt from a pastoral letter issued by the House of Bishops in the wake of General Convention's authorization of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. According to William Sydnor, "the tendency throughout the [Episcopal] Church was to be quite casual about observing the rubrics in the 1892 Book" [The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997), p. 104]. Recognizing that the norm of compliance with Prayer Book rubrics is one of the conditions necessary for maintaining the Episcopal Church's identity and unity, the bishops offered the following observations and issued a directive in their 1928 pastoral letter:

There is need in the Church as in the State to sound a call to loyalty. Your Bishops, assembled in triennial session, make an appeal for a loyal recognition of our common obligation to render generous obedience in observing in their integrity the provisions of our enriched Book of Common Prayer. ... Such loyalty does not, of course, preclude as occasions may require, special services as provided for in the rubrics of the Prayer Book or authorized by the Bishops; but it does demand of the authorized Ministers of the Church obedience to the rubrical directions of its authorized book of worship, as at all times binding upon priest and people. These rubrics and the various offices of the Book are the solemn expression of the mind of the Church. ... The liberty of experiemental usage allowed during the period of revision should now cease [Quoted in Sydnor's The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 104].

In a time when "rubrical laxity" in all orders of ministry runs rampant, it's hard to even imagine anything like this being written today. Could our bishops today even come close to agreeing that all clergy (including themselves) need to exercise this kind of generous obedience? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, the point that the Prayer Book's rubrics provide "the solemn expression of the mind of the Church" remains valid. And while it may be true that there are times and situations that call for greater flexibility with regard to the rubrics, those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Generous obedience to Prayer Book rubrics is part of the discipline of our Church, and, as such, is one of the ways that we are "discipled" - shaped and formed - as uniquely Anglican/Episcopal followers of Jesus Christ. The extent to which we are unwilling to submit to the mind of the Church as expressed in our Prayer Book's rubrics is the extent to which we substitute the subjective preferences of private prayer for common prayer. Given the centrality of common prayer to our tradition, laying aside that discipline entails nothing less than the undoing of our core identity and a rejection of our unique approach to Christian discipleship.


John Bassett said...

I know it makes me sound like a twit, but the one I'd really love to see enforced with a vengeance is reading from "books of appropriate size and dignity." I understand how putting the whole service in a leaflet makes it easier for visitors, but honestly, why can't the celebrant use the Prayerbook and the lector use the Bible?

On a more serious note, I doubt that the letter accomplished anything. It seems to me that we probably have more liturgical uniformity now than we did back then. I vaguely remember the days of Morning Prayer parishes and Anglo-catholic parishes which used the Roman Rite in a faux Elizabethan translation. The parishes I visit on trips and the one I attend most Sundays all seem to do Rite II pretty much as written.

But maybe I don't get around enough to see the real liturgical atrocities.

Bryan+ said...

I agree with you about the "books of appropriate size and dignity." I've seen priests read the Gospel from a leaflet before, and IMO, it looks rather pathetic. I understand the rationale of printing much (if not most) of the service in a bulletin for visitors, but that doesn't mean we can't do the service with appropriate dignity.

You may be right that the 1928 letter accomplished little. But just the fact that it was written strikes me as significant.

I'm not sure about the liturgical uniformity bit. It probably depends on where one attends services. I've heard of parishes in the Diocese of Chicago that, directly contrary to the Prayer Book, have dropped the recitation of the Nicene Creed from Sunday services. Apparently, the rationale is that the creed is a "turn off" for newcomers and visitors.

I'm also aware of clergy who take great license with the rubrics and even arrogate to themselves the authority to change the wording of the Eucharistic prayers to better fit their own personal theology. So much for the vow to "conform" to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church!