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!

How can we have Jesus as our main focus?

Apse, St John's Lateran
Apse of St John’s Lateran, my pic

The fourth-century mystic, Evagrius Ponticus, proclaims in his controversial Kephalaia Gnostica that the highest end of the Christian life is contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

Which is all well and good for, you know, monks who live in the Egyptian desert, like Evagrius.

But what about the rest of us? How are we actually supposed to keep our focus on Jesus like the Franciscans/Capuchins in my most recent blog post? Life for all of us has many things that require focus. Driving a car, making dinner, filing taxes.

Or, more broadly and at a higher level, what kind of husband would I be if I did not focus on my wife? What kind of a father would my brother be if he never focussed on my nieces and nephew? What kind of a regional manager would one of my friends be if he never really focussed on the paint business? What kind of vegetables would a person grow who never focussed on gardening? How would I ever write my PhD if I never focussed on collating manuscripts, reading secondary sources, analysing Leo the Great’s style?

We all have things to focus on that are explicitly not Jesus.

And, really, these things take a lot of time, don’t they? Time and mental energy.

To provide for themselves, desert monks of Egypt would weave baskets and sell them at market. Not exactly the most mind-consuming task. Try taking care of a one-year old for a mere hour – let alone day after day – and you will find your mind very well-occupied.

I am a mere amateur at this – no Franciscan saint sits behind this laptop, no great geron of the Egyptian Thebaid types these posts. I have gone days without prayer within recent memory. Weeks without concerted Bible-reading. I am prone to frustration and anger and annoyance at other people. I can be a jerk. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking on this question because of how bold and high I aimed in that last post.

So here are my thoughts.

First, get your butt in church on Sunday. Or Saturday evening. Try, if you can, to make it the same church most of the time (although I do enjoy a bit of ecclesiastical tourism, myself!) – whether Roman Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Coptic Orthodox or Baptist or Ethiopian Tawehedo or Greek Orthodox or Methodist or whatever.

Here you will meet Jesus in ways beyond your control. Sometimes it will be hard to find him because some of the people annoy you or the preaching’s a bit weak or the theology too liberal or the theology to conservative. Be there. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Learn, as I am striving to, to be moved by the Most Holy Trinity whether it’s Gregorian Chant or acoustic guitar or traditional Presbyterian a cappella Psalms.

Second, read the Bible every day. The Bible is God’s normative way of communicating with the human race. Yes, He spoke to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and the prophets and the Apostles and the mystics of the Church. Maybe He will speak to you in that way too.

Read the Bible. It is all about the Crucified God. I don’t care which translation you use, I don’t care which Bible reading program you follow, I don’t care what kind of meditation or study of Scripture you use. You want to focus on Jesus? Read a chapter or two of the Bible every day. Think about Jesus. You have time for this.

Third, pray every day. My Anglo-Catholic uncle once remarked that if a person doesn’t read the Bible and pray every day, he’s not sure what kind of a Christian they are. I’m not saying pull regular night-long vigils, or even a half-hour of intense prayer.

Just pray. Pray to Jesus. And pray that you will focus on Him more. I don’t care if you use the old evangelical acronym ACTS to guide you or the Daily Office or the Jesus Prayer or praying in tongues or seeking silence in your inmost being to find Christ there every day. Just pray.

These three things are probably the only things I think we should add to our regular lives. Everything else, all the spiritual disciplines, can be worked into our days without taking time from other activities and priorities. Fasting will take no time from your day.