In Defence of Set Forms of Common Prayer
(A sermon preached at St. James’ Cathedral, Toronto on October 14, 2012, by Dr. Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College.)
A sermon on the BCP is almost a self-contradiction; and might immediately be thought thin gruel – like going to a lecture on the joys of model ship construction. Sermons are in any case usually about things we can get our teeth into – ideas, propositions, doctrines. Oddly enough, Anglicanism has very few of these at the center of its life: no voluminous Confessions; no magisterial theologians to pore over; no dogmatics to argue about, and to preach on point by point.
Instead, we have a Book of Common Prayer. Compiled, edited, and rendered into English in the mid 16th century by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, the BCP became the single most identifying and formative tool of the English Reformation and subsequent Anglicanism. Revised here and there, its 1662 edition has itself been or has formed the primary basis of every Anglican Prayer Book around the world, up to the recent present. So we have the BCP: which means we pray. We are doing something, as it were, not thinking something or thinking out something.
Now I can try to explain a little what we are doing. But, it’s like talking about singing. It’s fairly pointless unless you sing or take in the singing of someone else. The good part of it is that we are singing here, as it were; that is, we are praying. So whatever it is I have to say, it will speak to a fact we share, not to someone’s idea about something none of us knows. So let us start right there: what are we doing, now?
We are gathered to celebrate the divine life shared – the life, death, and resurrection – of Jesus Christ. We are also celebrating the Book of Common Prayer. The only reason we would do this, here in this cathedral, is because the BCP itself is somehow a gracious servant of the life of Christ. For which we give thanks; and whose service of Christ’s life we are called ourselves to cherish, to uphold, to further. The BCP is the servant of our life in Christ, then. How so?
What we are doing is an activity, a work. Not a work for which we receive a reward, to be sure; but a work nonetheless: liturgy, literally, is the “work of the people”. And the BCP is the framework for this work. Let me divide it neatly into three actions.
The first one, we may call Exposure. You could also call this “offering”, as in self-offering. But I want to make clear that the praying we are doing in the BCP is not the offering of a gift to God: it is the baring of our souls to God’s own self-giving to us. The “oblation of ourselves” that the BCP mentions as being so central to our worship, is one of exposed proximity – of coming to stand before something in all of our nakedness. Before what? Before God of course: as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, here we draw ourselves near to “the throne of grace”. And drawing near, we are being laid bare; for “before him” – the living and active Word – “no creature is hidden”, our hearts are uncovered, the deepest ligatures of our beings are unraveled, and the hidden brought into the light. We are laid bare, just so that the Word might do its work on us.
What the BCP gives us, first and foremost of all, are the words of Scripture before which we stand, exposed. The words of the Word – psalms, the law, the prophets, the Gospels. These are just the things that Jesus referred to with the disciples after meeting some of them on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection: “these are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” – and so he taught them (Luke 24:27, 44f.). Cranmer’s systematic lectionary for the people, around which the BCP was structured and through which daily and weekly the entire Bible was read in public, was truly a “reforming” enterprise that changed the way Christians related to the Scriptures. There it was: the words of the Word spoken to all, each and every day, every week, from Genesis to Revelation; and we standing before them, opened! And not only the lectionary; the entire BCP, in its prayers and canticles, is suffused with Scriptural quotation, reference, and allusion. “You are turning the Bible into your own prayers!” the Puritans complained, worried that the distinction between God’s words and our own was somehow getting lost in this steady tide of Scripture pounding against our spirits. But that was just the point: the words of the Word must become our words too.
So we come to our second action in the BCP: Receiving. The Scriptures of God – the Word spoken to us – is not only spoken but is somehow made a part of us, somehow penetrates within. That is at the center of the BCP’s action. We sit and listen; we kneel and repeat; we stand and utter forth – these words, over and over. That is the effect of the formal ordering of BCP worship in its “iterated” force: bit by bit, over time, the words crack open the conscience and the mind and heart; weekly, yearly, over a lifetime – for the BCP is a life-time’s work, not a moment’s – the ordering of time finally drills itself into a focus on the one act of self-giving that is Jesus Christ: the Holy Communion. Here, not simply is the Last Supper remembered, and a few words from the Gospels repeated, but the entire Scriptures are summarized from creation to fall to promise to incarnation and sacrifice to resurrection and Spirit, to Church and eternity.
And we should be clear: one does Communion; one does it for the sake of receiving the Word’s own offering to us. One exposes oneself to the Word; one lets it make its way within us, and then, only then, does one receive it, like the ground that is prepared for the sowing of God’s seed (Mark 4). It’s a wonderful reality: the Word in its words prepares us for its own reception.
And so to the third action of the BCP’s worship that serves the life of Christ in our midst: Conforming. This is perhaps the greatest challenge to our age’s mindset, but also the greatest gift. “Conformity”: the word means to take on the form of another, or to take this shape on together with another person. It’s a word with a very specific set of connotations for Anglicans in the late 16th and later 17th centuries: conforming to the laws, to the usage of the Church in worship, yes; but more deeply, conforming to the words of the Word, and doing so together – being “conformist” in a modern sense, “like everyone else”, but actually with everyone else: living in the Word with others.
The BCP doesn’t itself actually use the word “conform” in this regard (although writers like Coverdale and then Hooker do). But it does speak very frequently of two things that often are linked: “gathering together” and using the “forms” of the Prayer Book itself. We are always “formed together”; and that forming is ultimately given in forms of “unity” and “concord” and “peace” and finally, of course, the “form of God”, the servant who is Christ. If everyone is exposed together to the two-edged sword of the Word; if everyone endures it sufficiently together to let it pierce and penetrate, listening to its repeated approaches; if everyone is thus one, then together the form of Christ is discerned within the forms of the words of the Word. So that the Lord speaks to the Rich Young Man today, not to me or to you, not just this day or this moment, but to us, together, yesterday and today and tomorrow – no one rises up and leaves, or if they do, there is another day, another prayer, another time for the words of the Word – for together then and now and again and again, we listen, we respond, we pray these words, for we are still here for those who could not hear but now return – then, yes, conformation, conformance, becomes a gift of the Lord.
To be sure, this kind of view may lead you, as it does me, to resist multiple revisions of the Prayer Book, or multiple options within it – Form I or Form II, Eucharistic Prayer 4 or 6, A, B, D, and so on. But I actually think that – and history bears this out – there is enormous roominess within the conforming body of Christ. BCP culture over the centuries, as we know, was one of enormous scope in intellectual engagement. Not merely because of the permissiveness of formalism, but because of the fact that the Word is itself, in the words of Gregory the Great, “like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim”. But we must go to the river together, and delve into its current over the course of our lives.