New Testament Christianity is Reflected Courageously in the Book of Common Prayer
by Michael Green
I am delighted to have been asked here tonight. Most of you who know me well may be surprised to find me in this select company (I see one or two of chuckling away there) speaking on the subject of the Book of Common Prayer, because I helped to found a thoroughly contemporary service at Holy Trinity Church which operates without robes, with very limited and partial use of the Book of Alternative Services, with extemporary prayer, with drama, with modern music, with choruses and with an overhead projector. Surely, I am the last person who should ever be invited to speak to the Prayer Book Society. Perhaps so. But, there is more to be said.
When I was the principal of an Anglican theological college in the United Kingdom and all the rage was for new expressions of worship, it was I who insisted on some regular use of the Book of Common Prayer.
It’s a great mistake to throw out a treasure which has meant so much to so many generations. It has a tremendous value and it will continue to the spate of new services that we have witnessed in our day. You see, two streams, as far as I can see, are flowing within our church and it is folly to try to mix them, which is why I read to you this word from Jesus Christ which seems so relevant to us on this subject today: “No one” He says, puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins. The wine is lost and so are the skins. But new wine is for new skins.
As you know, the wine was put into skins of animals in olden days. That was how it was dispensed and it was great the first time around when you had the yeast expanding and the ferment going on. But after that time it got hard and if you put in a new lot of fermented wine there would be a disaster, and as Jesus said ruin for both the new wine and the old skins. He has a concern to keep both.
Within our church then, there is one strand that is very keen on the old skins. It has a deep distaste for the shallowness in much of modern life and longs in worship to approach God with some liturgy that is tried and tested and has got depth and familiarity to it. Now that is entirely fitting.
There is another strand around in the church today (another stream if you like). It consists of people who are longing to reach out sensitively to folk who never darken the doors of a church, and to introduce them to our living Lord.
I belong to that stream as well. And I have just returned from a week of evangelism in the city of Mission, British Columbia, with a team of about sixty where we had a whole week there spreading the Gospel at all levels. I was fascinated to have a reading tonight from Acts Eight, of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch. That is exactly what has been happenning with all sorts of encounters in this past week. And it has been thrilling to see literally scores of people, young and old, people from a “churchy” background, people who have never been seen in church, coming to faith in Christ. And there are well over a hundred and twenty of them now in nurture groups in that city. It’s very thrilling.
So, you see, I am very much part of this other strand, as well, the strand which is seeking to reach out to people who have no knowledge of Jesus Christ at all.
So, you see, the old wine skins have an integrity. And so does the new wine. But if you try to mix the two, as the Book of Alternative Services does, the danger of splitting both is considerable. The B.A.S. does not really speak to those outside the church. I hope it was designed for them but, frankly, I think we have to confess that it is largely a failure in that respect. It doesn’t speak to the outsider.
If you want to win souls vitally for Christ, as we have done in this past week, you do not go with the Book of Alternative Services. Not that you can go incidentally, with the Book of Common Prayer. You go, as did Philip to the eunuch, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ contained in the most fresh and natural language. That is the new wine. And the B.A.S. doesn’t speak to those people. But, equally, it doesn’t satisfy many people who are in the church. The language is infelicitous and it lacks depth. That alienates many people who have been in our beloved Anglican church for many years.
So I want to go on record tonight to say that I believe strongly in the Book of Common Prayer. I believe also in highly flexible modern services which really do speak to the unchurched. But I fear that we have not been well served by our Book of Alternative Services.
Actually, if you look at the whole family of revisions within the Anglican communion, I’m afraid we’ve been saddled with about the worst of those revisions, despite many good things in it. I would urge tlie Prayer Book Society not only to contend for the retention of the Book of Common Prayer, but to contend for a competent, sensitive and spiritually pro-found revision of the alternative services when the time comes up towards the end of the century.
So we are in great danger of being in the situation where the wine is lost and so are the skins. I am much in favour of the Prayer Book Society and the determination you have not to lose this treasured book from Anglican worship in Canada. I say “you”, because I’m going back to England for my next job this summer so I won’t be able to be with you to see this thing through. I shall watch with enthusiasm from afar. But I must say this to you – we must be very sure that we do not cling to the Prayer Book for the wrong reasons, and that we do cling to it for the right reasons.
Here, I think, are some of the wrong reasons which sometimes get to us. We must not cling to it for its language. There are a number of people who really do very little about going to any Anglican church, but they love Elizabethan language and so they are all for the B.C.P. and they keep writing letters to the newspapers about it.
Beautiful though the language is, we must confess it is archaic. A good deal of it is difficult to understand, even for the modern graduate. And we don’t want to encourage, or he seen to encourage, church worship with a Prayer Book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. We must not cling to it solely for its language.
Secondly, we must not cling to it through fear of change. Christians are not called to fear. We are called to love and to power and to self control as the Holy Spirit grips us. And, just as we are not called to fear, we are not called to fear of change.
Cranmer’s England knew three Prayer Books, no less, between 1549 and 1552 and our security must never be in the Prayer Book and an unchanging Prayer Book. It must be in the Lord. Cranmer, I am sure, would be absolutely amazed to find us using the 1552 Prayer Book with a few alterations made a century, and again four centuries later. No, our promotion of it must not come from fear of change but from conviction of value.
Nor must we cling to it because we personally like it. It is familiar. It is comfortable. It is like a well worn and favourite pair of slippers. And, as tonight I found myself slipping into Prayer Book language that I’ve known from my youth, the same tunes, the responses, everything the same, I was carried away. But I said to myself, “Green, you’ve got to be very careful. This could be selfish. This could be self-indulgent, especially when so many younger people find this book very hard to get into.”
And there’s the fourth thing that we must beware of. We must not cling to it out of conservatism. The Christian faith is not conservative. It’s radical. It’s deeply challenging and very arresting. The Magnificat that we have sung tonight makes the Red Flag look tame. And if we are biblical Christians, it’s lovely to see this manifesto on the back of the leaflet of what the Prayer Book Society stands for. It wants to see biblical standards maintained in our church, though we are going to have to go a long way to see that effected in our church today.
But if we are conservative on Scripture, if we make the Bible our guide, we will find ourselves being radical towards all else, because this book certainly is a highly radical tome! No, we must not cling to the Prayer Book out of conservatism. We must never allow ourselves to be misrepresented as old fashioned fuddy-duddy conservatives clinging to a Prayer Book which is a relic of a bygone age, like shipwrecked mariners clinging to broken pieces of wreckage.
There are good reasons to contend for the Prayer Book with intelligence and force but they have nothing to do with Elizabethan English, fear of change and an antiquated mind-set. We worship the living God and we must never turn the Prayer Book into an idol. Very well you say, Michael, those are reasonable cautions, but, come on, tell us what good reasons are there to be vigilant in contending for the Prayer Book? Well, three have struck me and I will offer them to you tonight with humility and conviction.
The first is that the Book of Common Prayer provides dignified worship and there is nothing to parallel it in what has been offered to us within the new liturgies of the Church in Canada thus far. God is the high and holy one who inhabits eternity. He is not the pal across the street to whom we chat while we’re chewing gum with our hands in our pockets.
And the Prayer Book reflects this greatness, this otherness of God. It gives great honour and dignity to the living God and it cuts us down to size. It embodies the proper humility of a commoner before the King of Heaven. There is a fitting sense of awe before God in the Prayer Book, and awe is one of the things which is most notably lacking in contemporary Christianity, and, might I say so, it is very lacking in the banalities of the Book of Alternative Services from time to time. There I see little dignity of language. And I could live with its language cheerfully if it gave to me a deep sense of awe before God but it doesn’t.
That is one reason why I value the Prayer Book. It is not the greatest reason, but it is an important one. Even if you cannot understand what the Prayer Book says, and some people today cannot, we are left in little doubt as to what the Prayer Book means. And we are driven down on our knees before a holy Creator, and that’s no bad place to be. So that, I think, is the first reason. lt provides dignified worship.
Secondly, it embodies faithful teaching. Just recently, I have been to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace, and saw the little upstairs study where Cranmer wrote most of the Prayer Book. It moved me deeply. Almost every word in our Prayer Book comes from scripture.
And very modestly, Cranmer says something like that in his introduction to the Book. He says,
“Here you have an order for prayer and for reading of scripture much agreeable to the mind of the old fathers and a great deal more profitable than that which of late was used. It is more profitable, because here are left out many things, wherof some are untrue, some uncertain, some vain and superstitious; and nothing is ordained to be read but the very pure word of God, the Holy Scriptures, or that which is agreeable to the same – and that in such plain language and order as is most plain and easy for the understanding.”
Delightful – and true! He says this is a body of biblical teaching, broken up small and clear and plain for people to take in. Let me give you a couple of examples of that biblical emphasis in ways we do not have in the alternative which has been offered to us in the B.A.S.
Take, for instance, the matter of sin and confession. Now, we do not actually like to be reminded of our sins. We are archetypically proud. We like to swagger into God’s presence and say, “Move over, God. Here I come!” And the Bible will not have it. It is clear that compared with God, none is righteous, no not one. We are all as an unclean thing. All our righteousnesses, even, are as filthy rags. Our heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.
That is the unflattering picture that we find from the third chapter of Genesis to about the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. It comes in all the different authors that go to make up the Bible. It is a very clear analysis of human nature.
As Jesus put it, “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornications, adulteries,…” etc. These all come from inside and defile the man. I know my own heart and I know it’s true. If you read your own heart, there is one thing that I am sure of and that is that you will agree that it’s true as well.
Now, the Prayer Book faithfully reflects that emphasis, with the confession, morning and evening daily, and Sundays, and it stresses our sinfulness pretty hard. But the Book of Alternative Services leaves confession out of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. It has an optional penitential piece, which can be used, and which waters down our sinfulness. It would be very significant to compare the two. We don’t have time for it now, but I assure you that the contrast is stark.
We need that confession, even though we shy away from it. You see, the truth is that people never appreciate the love of God until they appreciate the extent of human wickedness. The more that I realize that I am down in a deep pit, that I can’t get out of, the more astounded I am that the Savior has come to find me and I want to give Him unending praise and adoration.
That recognition of human wickedness is clipped and manicured throughout the Book of Alternative Services. And that is a concession to the spirit of the age. The Gospel does not make concessions to the spirit of the age! It confronts the spirit of the age, where the spirit of the age has to be confronted. We must be very clear on that. And three cheers for the Book of Common Prayer which doesn’t compromise on painful truths!
Here’s the second area which is significant. The Prayer Book makes it very plain that the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or whatever you want to call it, is a precious leaving gift from our Lord Jesus Christ to His church. He leaves us a meal. Not a book. Not a set of instructions. He leaves us a meal. Isn’t that like God? It is a wonderful gift.
It is a memorial and assurance that his death avails for sinners like us. It is good for me to get on my knees and to hear the words, as that sacred broken bread is put into my hands and I am given the cup, that His body was broken for me, personally. His blood was shed for me, personally. The movement is entirely from God to us. But what we find in the Book of Alternative Services is a troubling difference in emphasis and it is not accidental.
There are no less than six eucharistic prayers, taking us back into the pre-reformation jungle of diverse services. But they all agree on one thing– which I cannot, I will not, and I have not used– they all say “We offer YOU this bread and this cup”, simply because a liturgy in the third century goes like that.
But it’s not the picture of the New Testament at all where the movement of the Eucharist is uncompromisingly from God to us. Not so in the B.A.S. It makes the movement from us to God. It’s all part of this coming into His presence and saying, “Move over God, here I come. Look God, I have something to offer you.”
The Prayer Book is fascinating. It has a self-offering by the church in response to the offering of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only after we have received His precious gift that we offer Him in loving response ourselves, our souls and bodies. But not a bit of it in the B.A.S.! Instead, we find right in the very centre of the eucharistic action in all six alternatives, “We offer you this bread and this cup…”.
But I don’t come to God in Holy Communion to tell Him what a fine fellow I am and to offer Him the bread and the cup. I’m not a fine fellow. I’m a deep-dyed sinner and I come to feed on that which makes alive and real to me His precious death for me. I come as a guest, who has no right even to be at that table except for His mercy. I am not worthy to pick up the crumbs under His table, were it not for His great mercy.
And I come on my knees as a sinner to Jesus, and it’s wonderful. I don’t come to offer Him the bread and the cup. I come to receive. The movement of the Gospel is that lie offers me the fruit of Calvary. His body broken and His blood shed; only in response to that can I offer Him my poor self and service.
Now those are just two of the ways in which the Book of Alternative Services is frankly a betrayal not only of the Prayer Book but of New Testament Christianity. For this reason alone, I’d be happy to say, as a Bible-based Christian, “Give me the Prayer Book ally day.” And if there comes a revision (and I’m not against revisions– neither was Cranmer), let it enshrine the teaching and the emphasis of Scripture.
There is one matter in which the Prayer Book Society must be vigilant if I may be so bold as to suggest it. There is bound to be a revision of the B.C.P. before long, and you have got to take care who is on that revising committee. In some parts of the world, the Anglican Communion has been very well served in its revisions and in others it hasn’t. Seek to ensure that any future revision is scriptural.
There is a third good reason for treasuring the B.C.P. You have included it, I see, in the leaflet. The B.C.P. is one of the doctrinal norms of Anglicanism and it must not be lost. Prayer Book standards in matters of doctrine reflect revealed religion, that is to say Biblical Christianity, and that makes them worthy of the service of God.
Now, if you want to know, if people want to know, what the Anglican Church believes, there has always been an answer. It’s not so clear as everybody wants but it is a perfectly clear answer.
The belief of the Anglican Church can be found in three places apart from Scripture: the Prayer Book, for norms in worship; the Ordinal, for norms in ministry; and the Thirty Nine Articles, for norms in doctrine– those three places.
Now the Thirty-Nine Articles are part of the Canadian Prayer Book and they are a benchmark of Catholic Christianity reformed at the Reformation. To be sure, they are historically conditioned; they are sixteenth and then seventeenth Century creations, but they share a profound instinct for what is really important in the Christian revelation and they are very firm on that. And they’re beautifully flexible on things like the Christian man and his oath or whether he should bear arms or not. They’re very free and flexible on that but they are very firm on the central, cardinal things.
So you get tremendous firmness, for instance in Article I, “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.” How about this face to face with the new age?
“There is but one living and true God, everlasting without body parts or passions, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness, the maker and preserver of all things visible and invisible.”
Clear, giving away nothing, absolutely on target!
Or see what it has to say, for instance, in Article IV on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, when many bishops are extraordinarily wobbly these days.
“Christ did truly rise again from the dead, took again his body with flesh and bones and all things pertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith lie ascended into heaven and there He sitteth until He return to judge all men at the last day.”
Now I wouldn’t put it precisely exactly like that but, boy, I tell you, the guts of the matter are there, crystal clear and with no fudging.
Or see what it says in that vital Article VI about Holy Scripture:
“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of the faith or thought necessary for salvation.”
Article VIII, “On the Creeds” maintains: “The three creeds the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles Creed ought thoroughly to be received and believed”. Why? “…[B]ecause they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”
Or consider the crucial question, how can we get right with God? Article XI is explicit:
“We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith in Him, not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine.”
Now, this may not be bedtime reading for us, not all the time! But it’s great to come back to and sharpen our minds to make sure that we are contending for “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” That is what our church teaches. That is what our church has traditionally taught, but it is nowhere reflected in the Book of Alternate Services. It is simply left out, like Granny’s necklace, relegated to a drawer somewhere and never worn. And as a result we have a castrated conception of Anglicanism in many circles today.
It is absolutely astonishing what I’ve met as I have moved around this country in Anglican circles, and indeed, outside Anglican circles. In Anglican circles, I find people looking at me and saying, “Dr. Green. That is not Anglican.”
What they really mean is that it is not the sort of emasculated Anglicanism that is often represented in our Canadian church. A sort of two candle powered, low key Anglicanism, where nobody believes anything very much and nobody complains about anything very much, except that the pews are hard.
But that is not traditional Anglicanism, which has much more depth and breadth than that. And it is certainly not the shape of Anglicanism in other parts of the world. I remember a certain Archdeacon once commenting on John Stott. He said, “John Stott?– scarcely an Anglican at all.” So I took pains to enlighten him that I just heard Archbishop Runcie commend John Stott as the greatest Anglican since William Temple. He became rather quiet at that! But you see, it was a very narrow view’. A blinkered view of Anglicanism.
Why? Because we have in Canada left out the Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles. And when we do that we have no star to steer by doctrinally.
People are being ordained into our church who have no allegiance whatever to Scripture. Indeed, they are very ignorant of Scripture. They have no experience of seeing people come to faith. They don’t expect anyone to come to faith! Our seminaries have surrendered to pluralism and relativism. I was in one on the Atlantic coast the other day that has a fully paid up witch on the faculty, and nobody minds!
Men and women emerge from these places who do not expect to see anyone come from darkness into Christ’s marvellous light. And so the church ages more and more; the young people are not there; and there’s no one being converted off the streets.
One of the things that has agonized me in my five and a half years in Canada is this. I have moved around a lot, seeing many different denominations in Canada encouraging evangelism and renewal wherever I go. When they hear that I’m an Anglican, people come up to me and say, “Fancy you being an Anglican! I used to be an Anglican too, before I became a Christian.” That is exceedingly painful to me.
But it does not come from one or two, or one hundred or two hundred. Thousands have left our church because they do not believe that we stand for anything and because they do not believe that we believe anything. And that’s tragic! These are not wild men of the woods on the edge of the Church. They represent some of our best life blood. But it’s draining from us because of the emasculated sort of image that we present.
If we love the Prayer Book and the Articles, we have got something solid and firm, but if we lose them, we have no bulwark against the liberalism and skepticism of the day. We have no doctrinal standards. There is no certainty, either, of the supremacy of Scripture in our church without it.
Everywhere, as I say, I find ex-Anglicans who have left the church because we seem really to stand for so little. Unless, like the Reformers, we take our stand on Scripture, the Creeds and the early fathers, and reach out in intentional evangelism and social service, we shall have no star to steer by, and increasingly abandoned by our crew.
Hold fast both to the old wine skins and to the new wine of renewal! And may God bless your endeavours in this beautiful land and in this much loved church where word and sacrament, where modernity and antiquity provide a magnificent balance.
“Lord, we pray for this beloved church of ours; that you will recall it to the purity of the Gospel of the New Testament. We thank you and we honour you tonight for the way in which New Testament Christianity is reflected so courageously in the Book of Common Prayer. We ask that you will not allow this precious document to be lost from our church in Canada. And we pray that any future revisions may be dominated, as Cranmer’s own revision was, by a deep spirituality and a passionate determination to proclaim the Gospel of the New Testament in a liturgy that can be understood by ordinary people of our day. Take us Lord, revive us, renew us. Glorify your name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”