Confessions of a Prayer Book Junkie

“Confessions of a Prayer Book Junkie”

(By the Rt. Revd. Dr. Stephen Andrews, Bishop of the Diocese of Algoma. This was the bishop’s Advent 2012 letter to the diocese, printed in the November 2012 issue of the diocesan newspaper.)

Dear Friends,

It should not come as a surprise to most readers that the Bishop of Algoma is a hopeless admirer of the Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Caleb kindly agreed to use the BCP service in my consecration, remarking that the last time this service for making bishops was used was his own consecration, some thirty years earlier. (Mine is not the most recent, however – Bishop Adam Halkett, bishop to the Cree in northern Saskatchewan, was consecrated according to this rite in October.) My request was greeted with puzzlement and suspicion in some quarters. A wary bishop called me up in the weeks before the service and asked if I was about to launch a new offensive in the liturgy wars. I explained, among other things, that the BCP service lays a strong emphasis on the teaching role of the bishop, and that this suited a college professor like myself.

There are, of course, a number of other features of the BCP services that distinguish it from more contemporary worship books. The roots of these differences are described on page nine of the Book of Alternative Services, and are chiefly related to the matters of polity and piety. The Church of the sixteenth century played a central role in the life of nation and village and the liturgy assumed a patriarchal class structure that is foreign to us in the 21st century. What is more, the ethos of the BCP seems not entirely to have left the Dark Ages behind, with the vestiges of what appears to be superstition and an obsessiveness with sin and death clinging like cobwebs. This is why some find the BCP to be strange and alienating. “How can it be anything more than a museum piece in our post-Christendom and scientifically humanist world?” it is sometimes asked.

Well, the answer, for many at least, is that it is appealing because it is not a product of the modern world. This is a major reason why the Prayer Book is enjoying something of a small resurgence among young people. These antique words, set out in Cranmer’s matchlessly mellifluous cadences, have the capacity to raise the worshipper from the mundane and pedestrian to the sublime. In them we inhabit the prayers of faithful believers from the earliest period of the Church’s existence, prayers embodying a primary humility that recognises our limitations and failures as God’s creatures, and expresses a deep aspiration that the God of all creation will bring healing to his world. Such words are a luminous relief to a culture accustomed to expressing itself in tweets and Facebook comments.

This, in fact, is what drew me to Anglicanism some thirty-three years ago. I was a young theological student wrestling with my own sense of Christian identity and vocation in the context of a foreign culture where my core convictions were being tried daily in the classroom. One Sunday I wandered into a local Anglican Church. The building was not especially attractive, and the greeters were not especially friendly. Unobtrusively, I slipped into an empty pew. When everybody fell to their knees I rather self-consciously did the same and fumbled to locate the words in the worn red service book sitting in the pew rack. I found my place just in time to repeat the words, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name.” In that moment I knew that I would never approach worship in the same way.

What changed for me? To begin with, my perspective on worship was fundamentally altered. I was accustomed to denominational traditions where worshippers could fairly be called “the audience”. My home church featured comfy raked seating set out in gently curving rows, all designed to help the congregation focus on the action being played out on the stage before them. But in the Collect for Purity I was dumbfounded to realize that the true stage was my own heart. I had come to church expecting to be entertained by God; I was suddenly aware that God had also come to church, but he was not there to entertain. He was there to be worshipped – by me.

The second discovery was that the work of the liturgy was to assist me in my own pilgrimage to wholeness in Christ by drawing me into the movement of God’s sanctifying grace. There is a logic in the way that the Prayer Book liturgies are structured. In a recent New Yorker article on the Book of Common Prayer, entitled “God Talk: The Book of Common Prayer at three hundred and fifty”, James Wood picks up on this: “There is a Protestant severity to the avowal that ‘there is no health in us’. But penitence can be reached only by walking down a familiar path, lined with straightforward words: we are ‘lost sheep’ because 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’”.

What Mr Wood observes here is that there is a cycle of devotion in the Prayer Book that begins with the frank acknowledgement of our bankruptcy before God. But, as the liturgy continues, this issues into an offer of God’s grace (conveyed in the assurance of our forgiveness) that is then received by faith (expressed in the reception of the sacrament and the offering of ourselves to God). This sequence of sin-grace-faith (it is, in fact, repeated three times over in the Holy Communion) constitutes the gospel genome, and those who pray the liturgy will undergo a kind of gene therapy where they will find themselves transformed into vectors of the gospel’s life-changing work.

Part of what prompts me to write on this matter is that 2012 is the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I hope you will join me in giving thanks for this extraordinary book and will consider joining with Anglicans across Canada in celebrating the BCP this upcoming Advent Sunday. December 2 is the date fifty years ago when the new Canadian Prayer Book was officially adopted for use.

To the honour, praise and glory of God’s name,

Confessions of a Prayer Book Junkie