Saturday, January 14, 2012

Spiritual Revitalization and the Non-Negotiable Book of Common Prayer

Over at the Daily Episcopalian, Dr. Derek Olsen has offered excellent thoughts on how to revitalize the Episcopal Church during a time of institutional decline and cultural change. The core of his prescription? More liturgy! And in the midst of other changes that may need to happen, an uncompromising commitment to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Here's an excerpt from the essay that suggests how Derek develops all of this:

... many of our people know the Book of Common Prayer as the book that our Sunday services come from. I’ll challenge this mindset in a moment, but this much at least ought to be the case. The Sunday services that Episcopalians experience should be common because they should proceed in common from the Book of Common Prayer. Whether it ought to be or not, Sunday morning is our main scheduled moment in the cultural eye. Deciding to monkey with the services in order to appear relevant doesn’t look relevant, it looks desperate. While I realize that the reverend clergyperson might have had a flash of insight on Thursday night that involves changing everything around to make some point about something going on in the news or culture, consider that not everyone else might share or appreciate that insight. Consider that the couple on the brink of divorce or the mother who just heard of the death of a neighbor’s son, might not be feeling your whimsy at the moment. We have enough things in our life and daily surroundings that change on a constant basis. Click over to the CNN website and the stories will be different from what was there just 5 minutes ago.

We need some constants too.

One of the most consistent and enduring images of God in the Psalms is the rock. What if our church could witness to that aspect of who God is by at least providing the stability of common prayer?

I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are certainly some things that I’d change if I had the chance. But recognize this: 1) it is an authentic expression of the historic Western liturgy that has nourished literally millions who have come before us. 2) It is an authentic expression of the English devotional experience. (The importance of this is not that it’s English, of course, but that it is a rooted, embodied, inherited tradition that has been embraced and passed on by a diverse group over a period of centuries—not just dreamed up by a few people last week.) 3) It is an authentic expression of historic Anglican liturgy that balances reform of Western norms with Scripture and the theological and spiritual practices of the Early Church. That’s actually quite a lot of things going for it—and it’s more things than would be going for most services either you or I would dream up.

Most people I know don’t go to church on Sunday morning to experience the rector’s latest exciting innovation; they go to church because they hope to experience God and to get a concrete sense of what it means to live out love of God and love of neighbor. Using the book doesn’t guarantee any of this, but it is a big step in the right direction.

Frankly, I don’t care if you’re “into” Quaker spirituality and so want to cut out some of the prescribed prayers and have us sit in silence then; I’m “into” Anglican spirituality, and I’d appreciate it if you did what the book says to do. Perhaps I’m a little touchy on this topic, but I’ve seen too many places where Sunday morning deviations from the book are about the rector inflicting the twists and turns of their own spiritual journey on the congregation. If we want to get serious about being the Episcopal Church then I suggest we would do well to get serious about our core messages and principles and—by canon as well as plain ol’ good sense—these are in the book. As a layperson, I see the book as a contract. It may not be exactly what I want, but it’s an agreed-upon corpus of embodied theology that we have all given assent to. I promise to use the book, and I expect that the clergy will do the same. This is a benefit that we offer those who come seeking—a place of stability in a culture that desperately needs it.

Derek continues by noting how the Prayer Book provides "a full integrated spiritual system that is intended as much for the laity as the clergy," that can "bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God" through the disciplined recollection of God by means of (among other aspects of the Prayer Book) the Daily Office. This is a critically important reminder of the need to bring each day captive to Christ through the Daily Office since, after all, the Daily Office is a means of grace. Derek writes:

In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.

This liturgical round lies at the heart of Christian spiritual formation - the process of making, nurturing, and sustaining disciples of Jesus Christ - and thus is central to the identity and work of the Church. Derek sums up the implications very well:

Much of the talk I’ve heard about how effective or energetic a parish is seems oddly institutional. That is, the discussions seem to focus on what sort of programs are run out of the building, what sort of activities the institution supports. But that’s only part of the story. The other part that is harder to quantify yet no less important is how the faith is filtering into the everyday lives of the people in the parish. When the strengthening effects of the sacraments, when daily recollections of God impel a person to stand up against questionable business practices in the office or against a bully in the schoolyard, the Gospel is being lived entirely apart from what programs are housed in the church edifice. ...

For me, this is where the church lives or dies. Are we forming communities that embody the love of God and neighbor in concrete actions? Not just in what programs the institution is supporting, but are we feeding regular lives with a spirituality that not only sustains them but leads them into God’s work in a thousand different contexts in no way related to a church structure? Are our parishes witnessing to their members and to the wider community in their acts of corporate prayer for the whole even when the whole cannot be physically there? Therefore this is why, when we worry about the fate of the church, my answer will be a call for more liturgy. Not because I like to worship the worship, but because of the well-worn path to discipleship found in the disciplined recollection of God that the liturgy offers.

My firm belief is that if membership is a problem, our best move is to head for spiritual revitalization. People who are being spiritually fed, challenged, and affirmed by their church will be more likely to show it, to talk about it, and to invite their friends and neighbors to come and see it for themselves. This won’t—it can’t—fix all situations, but even if it doesn’t, spiritual revitalization is what the Church is called to be about.

Derek is right that this will not and cannot solve all of our problems. But there's no doubt in my mind that he's pinpointing things essential to revitalizing the Episcopal Church: a non-negotiable commitment to "the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer," "the common prayers agreed upon there," and "the structure of the church that we have received."

There's no way I can begin to do justice to Derek's excellent essay in this posting, so be sure to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it all.


The Underground Pewster said...

Having lived through the last time that the BCP was "negotiated" into its current iteration, and having watched a recent surge in liturgical experiments, I think it is inevitable that, if there is a next generation of Episcopalians, then they will change the BCP.

I would just as well have stayed with the 1928 version, and I think that rather than looking forward to be "more relevant," looking backwards to be "more true" to God is a wiser approach.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Underground Pewster. I fully agree with you about the whole "more relevant" vs. "more true" approach. "Relevance" can be more trendy than faithful.

I think that only time will tell whether or not you are correct that there will be another BCP within the next generation. Another scenario is that, over time, there will be the functional equivalent of another BCP simply by virtue of General Convention authorizing more and more supplemental liturgies. That's easier to do than Prayer Book revision. But it comes with the price of undermining the meaning of genuinely common prayer.

Tom said...

We get experimental liturgies from "Enriching Our Worship" at diocesan convention and some other places. I'm reminded of the old joke about why Unitarians can't sing - they're always looking at the next line of the hymn to see if they agree with it. Though Rite 2 communion is pretty standard now, I remember the process of Trial Use and suspect that it destroyed the vestigal remains of the idea of a common liturgy. Tom Rightmyer Asheville NC

The Underground Pewster said...


Yes the supplemental and "special" liturgies are in separate books, are easier to pass off on the congregation, and do separate us from "common prayer."

C. Wingate said...

Those interested in my probably too long-minded comments may read them here.

Fr. J said...

I think you're right, Fr. Bryan, that General Convention will opt for more and more supplements rather than taking on prayer book reform, which has the effect of diminishing the prayer book, but which may ultimately be the lesser evil since supplements, even as approved, are not "official" and do not as such carry the weight of doctrine.

There are things I love about the 79 BCP, some things which I think are better than the classical books. Nevertheless, I sympathize with those who have noted that the 79 book is a departure from classical Anglicanism in a number of ways. Given that, we shouldn't be terribly surprised that it is unable to hold the church together at a time when there is greater experimentation than ever. Once we have made the move of saying common prayer does not need to be common across the centuries, we also start to lack the credibility to say that it has to be common across our churches in the present time.

Christopher said...

It is an excellent piece. I encourage others to comment on it or the related threads as there is lively debate going on there.

I would caution about suggesting that 1979 undid our commonality. As Massey Shepherd has noted, a common book in the 19th and 20th centuries did not mean common enactments--we had high masses with no communion, morning prayer with antecommunion, and communing eucharistic services. There is flex there and it is an enacted theological flex.

What is in danger of being lost is a common book, and that is not the fault of 1979, though sometimes it overwhelms with choices. We are in danger of losing a shared book for supplements, and I would much prefer a revision well done and careful to multiplication of supplements...

C. Wingate said...

The other thing is that the intent of the supplemental material I'm seeing, thus far, is to say something different from what 1979 says. The Prayer Book Society people disagree, but I think that Rite I and Rite II intend to say essentially the same thing, albeit with different tone and perhaps emphasis. A lot of material I'm seeing now is being justified by people saying that can't say what's in the BCP, and they in turn are writing material that I at least cannot bring myself to say. The potential is for an effective schism, or worse the kind of showdowns that afflicted the Diocese of Washington in Haynes's day: what happens when the bishop shows up and insists on using a supplemental liturgy which the rector has thus far refused to inflict on his parish?

Christopher said...

I would say that both Rite I and Rite II, in very different idioms, seek to proclaim, profess, and present the Creedal Christ, the Incarnation in His fullness, meaning from Nativity to Ascension and so on. The former is largely cruciform in our inherited Consecration Prayer, for example, with hints toward influence from Greek Patristics and the Caroline period in the second Anaphora in a move toward the Nativity and creation. Folks forget that the Crucifixion is a maximal sign of the Incarnation. Within these, there is largely a Representative Christology drawing on the riches of the tradition and a soteriology of gift which emerges not by pretending we are not sinners, but emerging precisely because we are sinners. Rite II continues this and expands this, drawing on continual theological reflection that emerges over the centuries. For example, compare the two available Collects for Ascension. One is Cranmer's, the other is heavily influenced by Maurice and the Kenosis theologians, not to mention Temple and the like.

There are pieces of EOW or "Rite III" that are rich, like proclamation of Christ as Creator, for example. They arise also out of continued reflection and can find resonance in the Carolines and Maurice and the Kenosis theologians--and they remain devoted to the particularity of Jesus Christ. However, there are pieces that are inconsistent with a Christocentric-Trinitarian lens, such as "God be with you." Which God? The resonance of Jesus is Lord, that early Creed, with the Lord be with you, with YHWH is Lord at Creation and Redemption and Consummation cannot be ignored in the more specific and traditional greeting.

What seems to be afoot, in my opinion, is a want for a Christ that is other than the Creedal or Incarnational Christ Who is at the heart of our praying, Who through Him and by the Spirit makes us by gift members of His Body and participants in the Life of the Holy Trinity. It's uneven. Some of what the supplements offer is Christologically and therefore Creedally and Trinitarianly sound. Others of it is not.

Related to this is a want to expand the link between Creation and Redemption, but not in the way Maurice or the Kenosis theologians would, but in a way that downplays sin... It comes off as an ecological move, but it is the wrong move in my opinion, because naming sin itself declares our Need for God, our utter dependence, and that is not unrelated to how we treat our fellow creatures and the whole of Creation.

Bill Dilworth said...

"What seems to be afoot, in my opinion, is a want for a Christ that is other than the Creedal or Incarnational Christ Who is at the heart of our praying..."

Which reminds me of the "Cosmic Christ" I have heard people talk about. It's a Christ that seems separated from the Incarnate Christ.

I've wondered if it has anything to do with those Russian icons of the pre-Incarnate God the Son (icons known as Emmanuel when they depict a young enthroned Christ, and Holy Silence when depicting an angel-like figure meant to be Christ as the Wisdom of God. Those icons and the Cosmic Christ seem to share the same problematic separation from or ignoring of the Incarnation.

In a way, they remind me of St Gregory of Nyssa parish in San Francisco. I don't know if they still do, but when I lived in SF the people at St Gregory's spoke of trying to reconstruct a pre-Creedal Christianity. They all strike me as attempts to unring one historical bell or another.

Hope this makes sense...