Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

The Prayer Book and the Bible

Big Bibles from Troll Keeper's HouseIf one were to ask the average Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they would probably say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ This is, of course, an inaccurate statement, although there are certainly individuals in all Christian traditions who read, mark, and inwardly digest far too little of the Bible.

If one were to ask the average low-church, non-Anglican Protestant on the street what is wrong with the faith of Anglicans, there is a chance that, once again, they would say, ‘Not enough Bible.’ Some, including at least one low-church Anglican I know, would point to The Book of Common Prayer as part of the flawed faith of Anglicanism. Too much BCP; too little Bible.

Well.

Holding in my hands the Canadian BCP of 1962, let me tell you a few things:

  • Out of 736 pages, 190 are taken up with the Psalter (that is, the Book of Psalms).
  • Immediately prior to the Psalter are ‘The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be Used Throughout the Year’ — no more than a quarter of this section is taken up by the Collects; the rest are passages from the Epistles and Gospels for use at Holy Communion; 235 pages of text. Imagining 1/4 Collects, that’s 176.25 more pages of Bible, bringing us to a total of 366.25 pages of Bible — almost half the BCP right there.
  • Morning Prayer: Begins with a Bible verse, options filling up c. 3 pages. Includes the Lord’s Prayer twice, Psalm 95, one or two more Psalms, two significant Bible readings, the song of Zachariah from Luke 1, several responsory Bible verses, and closes wth 2 Corinthians 13:14.
  • Evening Prayer: Like unto Morning Prayer, but instead of Psalm 95 we have the song of Mary from Luke 1, and instead of the song of Zachariah we have the song of Simeon from Luke 2.
  • If one becomes concerned that all these repetitive Biblical Canticles are a bit much, 5 pages of Scriptural options are provided, besides recommended Psalms in the rubrics.
  • At Holy Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer twice, either all Ten Commandments or Christ’s Summary of the Law, the aforementioned Epistle and Gospel readings, a Bible verse to introduce the offertory, another Bible verse after the offering has been collected, the Comfortable Words after confession of sin which are all Bible verses, and the Words of Institution which are taken from 1 Corinthians.
  • In the book The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, we learn the many Scriptural phrases and ideas that make their way into the Collects.
  • In the lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer as set out in the 1549 through 1662 Prayer Books you read through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice a year, as well as the Book of Psalms once a month. In the Canadian BCP of 1962, the Psalter takes two months.
  • At every service of the BCP one recites either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed, and sometimes the Athanasian. These are summaries of Scriptural teaching.
  • On page 544 is ‘The Catechism: An Instruction to be learned by every person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’ — and Confirmation is one of those nasty, ‘unbiblical’, Prayer-Book Anglican things — much of which is recitation of Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
  • In the Solemnization of Matrimony, besides various references and allusions to Scripture (such as are abundant throughout the BCP), we have either Psalm 128 or Psalm 67, the Lord’s Prayer, responsory Bible verses, a Bible reading from Colossians, and a Bible reading from Matthew.
  • The other, less common, services demonstrate a similar combination of straight Scripture and scriptural allusion or concept.

Frankly, it is hard to find an order of worship more imbued with Scripture than Prayer-Book Anglicanism (although the Orthodox in Holy Week give us all a run for our money!). If we actually followed the rubrics and read all of this Scripture, and then followed the BCP’s exhortations concerning Scripture — to read, mark, and inwardly digest it; to truly pray for God to write His law on our hearts — Anglicans would be soaked and saturated with Holy Scripture to an extraordinary degree.

Finally, as my last piece of evidence for Prayer-Book Anglicanism loving God’s Holy Word, I give you this from the Supplementary Instruction (pp. 554-555, 1962 BCP):

Question. Why ought you to read God’s holy Word, the Bible?

Answer. Because it tells how God has made himself known to man; and how we may come to know him, and find salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of his Church.

Question. What does the Church teach about the Bible?

Answer. The Bible records the Word of God as it was given to Israel, and to his Church, at sundry times and in divers manners; and nothing may be taught in the Church as necessary to man’s salvation unless it be concluded or proved therefrom.

Question. Where then is the Word of God to be found in all its fulness?

Answer. In Jesus Christ, his only Son, who was made man for us and for our salvation.

Question. What is the vocation of a Christian in this world?

Answer. To follow Christ and bear witness to him; to fight the good fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life.

O tempora! O mores! That we have laid aside so rich a heritage as the Prayer Book in these last decades for the modern and mundane!

A controversial Good Friday collect from 1549

In his 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer included a collect for Good Friday that was reprinted up to 1662. I don’t know about the early 20th-century attempts to re-shape the Prayer Book, but in Canada’s 1959/62 edition, this third collect is gone, while the other two are present.

Here is the 1549 spelling, as found here:

MERCYFULL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothyng that thou hast made, nor wouldest the deathe of a synner, but rather that he should be converted and live; have mercy upon all Jewes, Turkes, Infidels, and heretikes, and take from them all ignoraunce, hardnes of heart, and contempt of thy word: and so fetche them home, blessed Lorde, to thy flocke, that they maye bee saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one folde under one shepeherde, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lyveth and reigneth, &c.

Since I received a 1662 version of the BCP for Christmas, today was the first time I read this collect. I think it is says something important about Good Friday that we lack in the other two collects.

The first of the two collects is a prayer for the congregation there gathered, focussed on Christ’s Passion, and the second is for the entire Church. The third takes the focus beyond the Church to the world, to those who do not yet know the Gospel. The four groups listed are Jews, Turks, Infidels, and heretics. I can see why this prayer would be controversial in the 1960s and not precisely ‘PC’.

However, let us look at these four groups in turn. First, the Jewish people. We get well over half of our Bible from the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jewish man, as were the Apostles. It is in fulfillment of prophecies made to the Jewish nation that Christ came, died, and rose for us. Therefore, that so many Jewish persons have not embraced Jesus as their Messiah, Saviour, and Redeemer, is something that should concern us. Christ died both for Jew and for Gentile. They are worthy of our prayers.

Second, we have Turks. This is probably a catch-all phrase for Muslims. Here we have the other of what people term ‘Abrahamic faiths’. Here we have a very large portion of the world’s population, whose holy book teaches many things contrary to our faith, yet many things cunningly similar — so close, yet so far away. In the minds of people in 1549, the ‘Turks’ were primarily to be found as the inhabitants of the Holy Land, as well. Should not the salvation of those who live where Our Lord walked and died be a concern for us? Did Christ not die for the Muslim Turk as well? They are worthy of our prayers.

I am not sure about the Infidel. Is this all unfaithful, ie. all un-believers, or a different circumlocution for Muslims? I do not know. But this I do know — Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. They are all worthy of our prayers.

Finally, heretics. The common view until recently is that heretics imperil their souls by their twisted belief. This may be true. Whether or not heretics are all going to Hell, they are certainly mistaken about the character of God and His action in the world, and as persons thus mistaken, they are not able to enjoy the love and fellowship of God as closely as the orthodox. Otherwise orthodoxy is meaningless. If you take offence to that, consider this: If someone thinks I am a Communist or a basketball player or only five-foot three, that person clears does not know me very well at all. That person has not entered very deeply into love and fellowship with me. So also when we think of God and heresy. Christ died for the heretics. They are worthy of our prayers.

Christ died on Good Friday, spilling out his blood for the sins of all of humanity. If we do not pray for the unsaved today, then we have lost the plot. If we pray only four ourselves and our churches, if we pray only for a better understanding of the cross, if we only meditate upon what this violent, glorious event means for us as Christians — we have lost the plot.

The Second Article of Religion states:

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Are we bringing this truth to bear to others? Are we praying for the salvation of the whole world this Good Friday? Are are we navel-gazing and ignoring our mission as followers of the Crucified God?