More on the Prayer Book and Evangelism

More on the Prayer Book and Evangelism

by Michael Knowle

In a sermon preached on October 16 at the Church of the Messiah, Toronto, to members of the Prayer Book Society, I proposed that the Book of Common Prayer both is and at the same time is not an evangelistic liturgy.

First the positive. In a recent book entitled Archbishop Cranmer’s Immortal Bequest. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England: An Evangelistic Liturgy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), the Swiss-German scholar Samuel Leuenberger has effectively shown that the spirituality of the Prayer Book is a spirituality of repentance, spiritual rebirth, sanctification, bearing witness, and the fellowship of the faithful. Personal conversion and faith in Jesus Christ are at the very heart of Cranmer’s theology.

The Communion service, for example, is a bold proclamation of all that Christ has done for us by his death and resurrection, and a bold invitation for us to place our faith in Him alone. One need only think of the Confession and Absolution, the “Comfortable Words,” the prayer of Consecration (“a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”), or the words of administration: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” And what could be more absolute by way of self-offering than to say, “Here we offer and present unto thee, 0 Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee”? Because the Book of Common Prayer both dramatizes for us and urges us to experience God’s grace in Christ, YES, it is an “evangelistic liturgy.”

But in another sense, neither the Book of Common Prayer nor any other liturgy is essentially evangelistic, for the simple reason that liturgy is something that by definition one must come into the church to experience, whereas Christ firmly commands us to go out. As commonly defined, liturgy is the work of the gathered church, whereas evangelism is the work of a church sent boldly out into the world. In this, we are simply following the pattern set by Christ Himself, who told his discipies, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” John 20:21).

On the other hand, many people first encounter the Good News of Jesus Christ by hearing it proclaimed and celebrated within the community of faith. In what sense, then, is it still necessary to “reach out”? When God spoke to us in Christ, He spoke in human form. When Christ spoke to his disciples, he spoke in their language, Aramaic, and when the Gospel writers told the church about Jesus they did so in the language of their world, which was common (koine, not classical) Greek. Then when the Reformers wanted a liturgy for the English people, they appointed “That all things. . .be read and sung in the Church in the English Tongue, to the end that the congregation may be thereby edified,” as the “Original Preface” of 1549 states. In each case, the Gospel was proclaimed “in a tongue..understanded of the people” to whom it was addressed (Article XXIV).

But the language of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – that of the Prayer Book – is not a language that people speak today. Its phrasing is lofty, its cadences beautiful; but we must face the painful truth that for the great mass of Canadian society, the language and liturgy of our church are the epitome of irrelevance. The church just doesn’t speak their language. By contrast, God speaks to us time and time again, not “in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor 2:1), but in the very words, the very language that ordinary, sinful, unchurched and spiritually unwilling people use. God has made the effort to reach out, and asks that we do the same, in order that His lost people might understand the words of love and restoration that He still wants to speak.

By the miracle of Jesus’ incarnation, God reaches out and translates himself into human form, and human language: the Word becomes flesh (John 1:14). He asks no less than this of us in our day. The Prayer Book calls us to one conversion, our conversion to Christ, but Christ calls us also to a second conversion, that we might follow Him out of the church and into the world.

The Rev’d Dr. Michael Knowles is Assistant Director, Institute of Evangelism, Wycliffe College, Toronto.

Readers are referred to the article on this subject by the Rev’d G. Brett Cane, Rector of St. George’s Church, Montreal which appeared in the September, 1991 issue of the Society’s Newsletter.