Common Prayer — the power of ‘normal’ liturgy

Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book
Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book

I thought about making the title refer to ‘typical Anglican’ liturgy or the ‘appeal’ rather than the ‘power’, but power runs deeper than appeal, and common prayer runs wider than Anglicans.

Last week I blogged about my experience at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, France and how much I liked it. There were two facets to the service that really appealed to me — orthodoxy and something at the time that was less tangible but which Bosco Peters pointed out as common prayer. I believe that the latter bolsters the former, which is part of its power.

‘Normal’ eucharistic liturgy in a western tradition, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, will follow a particular structure which will have many elements in common with the Divine Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches.

This right here is part of the power of a ‘normal’ liturgy. It is so normal that it is … common. Common prayer, following a structure with certain elements across Christian traditions and throughout space and time. If you go to a liturgical church, chances are that each Sunday you are engaging in ritual actions in your worship of God that are connected with fellow believers in almost every country of the world in a vast array of languages — and they aren’t even all of your denomination!

That’s a comforting thought. The liturgy brings us together. Assuredly, if you set foot in some churches, their liturgy may seem strange, and the ‘common’ elements harder to spot, but they are there. And possibly more of them than you think. Through a ‘normal’ liturgy, the unity of Christ’s Body is demonstrated in a way that transcends the barriers raised in the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, 1700s, last year.

Among these common elements, I want to pick out just a few: God’s word written, confession, the ‘sursum corda‘, and hymns.

God’s word written is an inescapable element of common prayer. I grew up at a church with an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. This is the typical breadth of an Anglican service when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, so it is sensible that a significant portion of our worship be spent in giving attention to it.

Furthermore, for most of Christian history the bulk of the congregation would have been illiterate, so the public reading of the Bible was the primary way ‘ordinary’ Christians would meet the written revelation of God. The Bible is central to the liturgy.

Part of this is found in the use of a lectionary to provide the readings. Most mainline churches and Roman Catholics use the Revised Common Lectionary, providing a three-year cycle of readings to give us passages of Scripture tied to the Church year and keeping our attention on Jesus and the Gospel all year through. Some Anglican dioceses still use older Prayer Book lectionaries, and the Orthodox communions use their own lectionaries keyed to their church year.

Such lectionaries have several benefits: they force preachers to preach on things they would not normally choose; they keep a year-round, global focus on the full richness of Jesus’ life and ministry; they, like common prayer at large, bind churches together across time and space. Someone else somwhere else somewhen else has read this selection of Scriptures at Eucharist as well.

Besides these appointed readings, if you start paying attention to your liturgy, and not just the Communion, you’ll find that Scripture is everywhere. And biblical theology is interwoven into those places where the words themselves are lacking. The Bible is central to liturgical worship, not peripheral.

Confession is an important aspect of all Christian lives. Some of the 16th- and 17th-century so-called ‘Puritans’ in England (not all of whom were Calvinist) felt that there was no need for a prayer of confession before Communion — after all, the true Christian will repent the moment he/she is aware of sin, and therefore turn up on Sunday with a clear conscience. This argument presupposes that a. only ‘true’ Christians make it to the Eucharist (and the Church cannot actually police that, as St Augustine observed), and b. Christians are mindful of their sins throughout the week. It also imagines that indidivual prayer and confession are all that matters.

However, throughout the Bible we have examples of the nation of Israel being called to corporate confession. Furthermore, prayers of confession in the liturgy tend to cover a lot of bases — ‘what we have done and what we have left undone.’ Part of common prayer is to teach us corporately how to pray individually. Confessing our sins to God together is a way of reminding us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory God and that we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table — and so, as we prepare for the feast, we lay bare our souls to God.

And if you think that your church has a strong emphasis on confession or that the Prayer Book goes too far, read any of the eastern liturgies, or go to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts some Wednesday in Lent and touch your forehead to the ground and ask yourself what true repentance looks like.

The ‘sursum corda’. You know this bit:

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …

That was straight from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. I did hear it almost every Sunday for over 25 years of my life, after all. Here is where ‘normal’ liturgy begins to time travel. The power of this prayer lies not in the fact that Christians from Anglicans and Methodists to Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox pray it but that it transcends time as it transcends space.

This piece of the liturgy — ubiquitous until the Reformation — first appears in Hippolytus in the early 200s. From what I’ve read, everything in The Apostolic Tradition is, actually, traditional. Thus, it dates back to the second century at the latest. When we pray a ‘normal’ liturgy, we are praying with the earliest Christians who ever prayed.

Awesome.

And the eucharistic structure remains largely unchanged as well, while the preceding part of the service, ‘the liturgy of the Word’, has visible roots in synagogue worship. A ‘normal’ liturgy is normal for the second century as well as the twenty-first, if not the first.

Magnificent.

Hymns. Here we come to the least common element of all, you might think. What has an Anglo-Catholic choir singing music by Tallis to do with their low Anglican neighbours singing Matt Redman or the Byzantine chant from the Oktoechos down the street? What has John Wesley with the Methodists to do with John Michael Talbot with the Catholics? An organ vs a cappella? A rock band vs a four-part (40-part) choir?

Whatever our take on the musical aspect of hymnography, the hymns do, in fact, unite us. The hymns are a more changeable aspect of the liturgy. A typical Anglican church will have a minimum of three or four, some add more during Communion or at different points within the service. Yet each week, common prayer gives western churches (I admit to ignorance re the East here) the chance to be flexible to the worship and needs of their own situation — we choose our own hymns.

Yet even in this difference, we are united in the praise of Almighty God, whose worship transcends all liturgy, all hymns, all confessions, Scripture itself. This is what matters when we meet together to pray to and praise the Most Holy Trinity, and I believe that there is deep power in a ‘normal’ liturgy, in common prayer united across space and time, through the ages and around the world, to do just that.

*whew*

Hm … what WOULD my preferred worship service look like?

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church WorshipThe question arose in the comments to one of my posts (The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical) some weeks ago as to what my ‘perfect’ worship service would look like. This is an interesting question, and probably unanswerable. Half in jest, I am tempted to say, ‘1662’, but, then, maybe not…

Nonetheless, there are some elements that I would like to see for a regular Sunday morning service:

  • Regular communion. Preferably weekly or biweekly. I grew up with weekly, but in Toronto biweekly worked well with BCP 1959/62 Morning Prayer the other weeks.
  • Lots of Bible. Whether Communion or not, read out at least two, if not three or four, passages of Scripture. They don’t need to all be the text preached on. The Bible just needs to be proclaimed to us as a people and assimilated into our hearts. The regular reading aloud of the Word before the congregation helps that. It is an ancient component of Christian worship.
  • Psalms. Sung, preferably. A cappella if possible. I’m not joking. The Psalms were Israel’s hymn book/prayer book. These are the prayers and hymns of Jesus’ worship life. Make them those of your church as well.
  • Liturgy. For some, the perfect church service is obviously 1662 or the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom or the Roman Mass. For many, and for the sort of Protestants I have in mind, pure, undiluted liturgy may be too much. Worship is about giving glory to God. If you are distracted by the printed words or the incense or the procession with candles, you aren’t glorifying God. There is a place for out-and-out high liturgy, but I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, nor preferable.

    What I’m thinking of is something basic and structured, especially for the Communion. I think a regular service of Holy Communion is not only to include the words of institution from the Last Supper but is best done with a liturgy that ties in traditional liturgy running from ‘Lift up your hearts’ to the receiving of the elements — words that have been in use since the late 100s in Hippolytus.

    Responsive/antiphonal readings/prayers are also part of my preferred service — litanies, for example. And a set-piece confession can provide us with theologically precise words to express our sorrow and the lowly state of the human soul before Almighty God.

  • Confession — a time of silence to offer a private confession, whether accompanied by liturgy or not, is worthwhile. Obviously, we are to confess every time we sin in real life, but this sort of communal activity in public helps teach us and remind us what to do in private. It is a healthy part of public worship not only to revel in God’s glory together but to look into the depths of our murky hearts as well.
  • Old and new. The Christian faith has produced hundreds — nay, thousands — of hymns over the centuries. Churches ignore the treasure house of hymns to their peril. If your church is going to be using contemporary worship, I recommend adding at least two hymns into the mix each Sunday. Alongside the latest hits from Stuart Townend or Matt Redman, sing also the old hits from Prudentius, Charles Wesley, or J M Neale.

    As regards the new, while I prefer classic hymns, I do not disparage all new music. I simply urge discretion — why sing something simply because it’s new and popular? Is it poetically, theologically, and/or musically worth singing? While people approach the Lord’s Table for Communion is a good time to sing new songs, I have found.

  • Sermon. Sermons are good. In a service such as this, where we are worshipping God, praying, confessing sin, receiving Eucharist, reading Scripture, and so forth, I don’t think the sermon needs to be big and long and even the central or most important aspect. I think people should be encouraged to get into the meat of Scripture in smaller Bible studies during the week, not in long, lecture-style sermons on Sunday. Preach from one or more of the given texts, clock in at 20-25 min (which is long for Anglicans!).
  • Other trappings? I like candles. I admit it up front. Sometimes I like incense, too. The presence of beauty in the worship space is important to me. If I were to blend traditional and low-evangelical worship styles, I’d go for candles at least. Robes preferably, maybe even copes and chasubles on occasion. The latter two, I think, should only appear on super-special feasts, though. 🙂

That is to say: My ideal worship service is liturgically structured with words and truths grounded in Scripture and tradition but with a flexibility of certain pieces of content — new songs and hymns are to be used with wisdom, similarly new litanies for the prayers of the people.

One final element is the occasional liturgical sermon. Every once in a while, have a sermon that helps explain why and what is going on in the worship service. Or preach a sermon that investigates the biblical basis for some of the popular words and phrases in the prayers and songs. Or investigate the theological foundations for the sacraments. Run a series on the Creed(s). This sort of preaching will help keep the liturgy from becoming a dead beast performed by rote.

The question should always be about the end goal of worship, of the showing to God His worth, the praising of Him, the offering Him thanksgiving, and the beseeching Him of our prayers. As the BCP puts it:

…we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

Do our worship and liturgical practices encourage this? That is the great question.

The BCP as School of Prayer

Last year was a much-celebrated anniversary, the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible. This year, another text of great importance for Anglophone Christianity and the English language has been celebrating a milestone with almost no clamour or fanfare at all — the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that version of the Prayer Book most widely used of all, common to all non-British, non-Irish Anglican Churches, and substantially still the Prayer Book of the Church of England and even of the Anglican Church of Canada today.

But why celebrate the BCP? The importance of the KJV is self-evident; in a Christianity populated by a plurality of Anglophone Protestantisms, to have had a single translation common to us all for so long was outstanding. Its contributions to language are also of note, either through its introduction of certain phrases, or at least its popularization of them.

One could make the language argument for 1662 as well — PD James’ novel Children of Men takes its title from one of the Coverdale Psalter’s most common periphrases for human beings; Stevenson has the phrase ‘all sorts and conditions of  men’ lurking in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But we shall skip along to the spiritual significance of 1662 and personal prayer.

We begin our investigation with the gestation years of 1662 — the bright days of Cranmer and Edward VI, the dark days of Mary I, the once-more illumined years of Elizabeth I, then the confused days of Civil War, and the dark days of Cromwell’s harsh, naked, Christmas-free Puritanism.

1662 Book of Common Prayer

In these years, the Church of England was seeking her identity — not yet clearly and unequivocally today’s episcopal church championing Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker, and Andrewes at every turn, but a Church with those such as Baxter, Bradshaw, Perkins, Owen, Milton also trying to see their vision of Reformed Christianity triumph. One of the live debates in these years was the necessity of a general confession before receiving communion.

My friend Tim recently told me that William Bradshaw argued that it was unnecessary because the justified sinner hates sin that the moment he or she is aware of it, repentance ensues. There is, therefore, no need for a general confession; the faithful will have already confessed all of their sins. Furthermore, are we not made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us when we come to faith? Is this not a reality of justification by faith?

Sometimes I think on this. What does make us worthy? As we even say in 1662, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou O Lord, whose property is always to have mercy, grant us so to eat the flesh …’ Does the general confession make us worthy to receive?

It is an interesting question to ponder.

And while I was making the bed the other morning, it came to me again. And in that moment, my mind stumbled upon something my friend Jeremy once said about the BCP, that through it, as we pray together, we learn how to pray when alone. The BCP is a school of prayer. This is a point my brother also makes.

Whether or not a general confession is absolutely theologically necessary to make us worthy to receive Holy Communion is, therefore — besides being a question that brings us to the realm of reductionistic, minimalist worship and theology — off the mark. The question is, rather, are we to confess our sins each day at prayer when alone, when praying with family? The answer is assuredly, yes. And how are we to pray? Here is the general confession to be said before receiving Communion:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And so we see the stance of humility found throughout the 1662 BCP, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That, as stated elsewhere, we do not approach Christ ‘through our own righteousness, but through thy manifold and great mercies,’ that last phrase being a parallel to ‘our manifold sins and wickedness’ bewailed above.

The general confession that commences Evensong calls to mind how it is that we sin, ‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.’

If you pray the BCP often, its words and its rhythm, its phrases and ideas get into your blood. Phrases such as, ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us,’ spill from your lips. And all the while it teaches you to pray, not just when you make your confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees, but also when prayers rise like incense for the Queen, for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, for Peace, for All Sorts and Conditions of Men.

I hope you have a BCP (not ECUSA 1978, tho) nearby you this evening or tomorrow morning. I hope you can take it in your hand and pray to Almighty God, that he may open your lips — and your lips may show forth his praise.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.