Encouraging Words from the PBSC’s Episcopal Visitor
By the Rt. Revd. Michael Hawkins, Bishop of Saskatchewan
I was deeply honoured, early in 2021, to receive an invitation to become the PBSC’s Episcopal Visitor. If anyone is wondering what an Episcopal Visitor is, this involves my acting as liaison between the Society and the House of Bishops, and providing ongoing advice and encouragement to the PBSC National Council. I am very pleased to have this opportunity of writing to the membership at large of the Society.
First, perhaps I should say a few words about my background. The Prayer Book has been central to my spiritual life ever since my undergraduate days at King’s College in Halifax. At that time, in the early 1980s, I helped to write some of the commentaries on the Daily Office readings that were being published by St. Peter Publications. While doing my M.Div. at Trinity College in Toronto starting in 1985, I served under Canon Robert Greene at St. Bartholomew’s Church, which as you may know is still a bastion of the BCP. Both of the parishes in which I subsequently served in Nova Scotia were exclusively Prayer Book – Pugwash and River John, and Petite Rivière and New Dublin. In 2001 I came to St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert to serve as their rector; St. Alban’s is still three-quarters Prayer Book. And now, as the bishop of Saskatchewan, I serve a diocese that uses mostly the BCP. Our Cree parishes use it almost exclusively.
I think that the Prayer Book is essential for Anglicanism. Without that distinct heritage and patrimony, that we learn from and grow into, there is no reason for us to exist as a separate stream within the Church. I think that the Prayer Book is the way that we’ve been given to connect to our catholic and reformed tradition. There’s a givenness to the Prayer Book in our history, and there’s a givenness to Prayer Book worship, which I think is compelling. It’s in the givenness of things that we find our freedom, that we find the way to serve the Lord. The verse in the great hymn “New every morning” by John Keble which runs, “The trivial round, the common task, / Will furnish all we ought to ask, / Room to deny ourselves, a road / To bring us daily nearer God” reflects the English spirituality that flows through the Prayer Book, which sees not in choices, but in the givenness of things, the hand of God. And that’s something, I think, that we all need a lot more of.
Part of that givenness of Prayer Book worship involves the use of lectionaries, both for the daily offices and for the Eucharist. Lectionaries are one way in which we follow the teaching of St. Peter, which is that no Scripture is a matter of private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20). Traditional Anglicanism insists that we must always read the Scriptures with the whole Church, so for that reason lectionaries are very important. Our Prayer Book Eucharistic lectionary has come down to us almost unchanged from the one used in the undivided western Church; similarly, the Daily Office lectionary, in which, for example, we read Isaiah in Advent and Genesis in pre-Lent, hearkens back to the most ancient times of Christianity. The newer Revised Common Lectionary, which is now in such widespread use, has the appeal that it is broadly ecumenical, but it constitutes a major break with our tradition and history; because at the time that it was developed a deliberate decision was made not to read the Scriptures with the early Church Fathers. By maintaining the Prayer Book lectionary we are grounded in a tradition of reading the Scriptures alongside people of our own time, but also within the whole 2000-year-old framework of Scriptural study in the Christian church.
I think that penitence is also a key aspect of the Prayer Book. Where we are now, in our context, both ecclesiastically and politically, there are endless battles of one form of self-righteousness against another. And I think that common penitence, which has a strong understanding of social sin – of corporate sin, but then also of corporate identity – is foundational. I think that one of the most moving points of the Prayer Book Communion service is when the priest kneels with the people at the moments of penitence and humility – at the confession, and at the Prayer of Humble Access. In those moments, there is no distinction between priest and people. And that is community-building. Also, the Prayer Book is uniquely gifted in being a reformed liturgy that holds out the teaching of “simul justus et peccator” – that is, we are at the same time justified and yet sinners. And that precludes self-righteousness. The tragedy for some of us who adhere to the Prayer Book is that we’ve become self-righteous about adhering to the Prayer Book! The Prayer Book itself gives no quarter to that kind of thinking.
To be sure, there are certain things in the Prayer Book that we have to grow into. For example, its objectivity. We pray for “all sorts and conditions of men”, we have a general thanksgiving, we have a general confession. The modern move towards particularity is something that I have sympathy for, but I think the pendulum has swung a good deal too far in that direction, so that people think that if you don’t mention in prayer everybody, every circumstance, every detail specifically, you didn’t pray for them. If we think that we need to inform an ignorant God about what is going on in the world, we’re mistaken! There is also the extravagance of some of the language in the Prayer Book. Where it grates or bothers us, for example in some of the penitential language, that is something that we need to reflect upon. Much of this kind of language is taken directly from the Scriptures, after all. Spiritual maturity comes through struggling with these things, thinking about them, living into them – as with much of the language in the psalms – rather than just rejecting them. I think of the Prayer Book as being like organic, whole grain bread. It takes more effort to chew and digest it, but it’s much better for our systems than that fluffy white sandwich bread.
I have been a supporter of the PBSC’s work ever since it was founded. I was a seminarian in Toronto from 1985 to 1988, so I was there when the PBSC was first formed, and got to know all of its founding fathers, one of whom was Canon Robert Greene under whom I was serving at St. Bartholomew’s as I mentioned before. (Canon Greene’s military record, his parish ministry, and his incredible advocacy for the poor were and are an inspiration to me.) And I definitely participated in the protest movement phase of the Society. I still remember, after I moved back to Nova Scotia, preaching a sermon at a Prayer Book Society gathering and afterwards getting hauled up to the bishop’s office because of reports about what I had preached! During those years the Society made many outstanding contributions to the liturgical debates. Issues were raised about alternative liturgies that lacked for example the reformed doctrine of Christian penitence; concerns were raised about the proper expression of Christ’s redeeming work, the “one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. The Society faced a daunting challenge to preserve a place for the Prayer Book, even the right to use it. And I would say that although this sort of pressure has waned over the years, efforts to suppress the Prayer Book still continue in many places, and this is something that I have publicly called my episcopal colleagues out on, and will continue to do.
On the whole, though, I think that it is as a renewal movement, and as a movement of prayer, that the PBSC has done its most impressive work. So I could not more fully support the current tone and direction of the Society. Projects such as the introduction of the new prayer “For Reconciliation with the Jews”, which was a really stellar piece of work, have totally changed the church’s general view of us. These days no one sees us as an enemy – they see us as a particular group with a particular charism and interest. And the Society’s production of the new BCP app has been a real game-changer, and it showed remarkable leadership. It demonstrates that the Society wants to support and encourage clergy and lay people in maintaining a discipline of daily prayer and Scripture reading, while at the same time holding out the wisdom and the ancient tradition of what we have received in our Prayer Book. The app has proven to be a gift to the entire church, not only the Anglican Church of Canada but also beyond, particularly during the current pandemic. It’s certainly been a life-saving gift to me these past six months. As many may have heard, I was hospitalized with COVID-19 and in isolation for a while, and quite ill; and in my foggy mental condition it was a real blessing to be able to pull up this easy-to-use app on my cellphone and pray the daily offices. So I’m extremely excited about it.
In conclusion, I would like to say that alongside clergy such as Canon Greene, my appreciation for the Prayer Book has been fuelled by some stellar and exemplary lay figures who have been advocates for it. To name just one example, I remember with gratitude Jerry Fultz, who was a founding member of the Nova Scotia branch of the Prayer Book Society. He was my lay reader for eight years, and like a grandfather to my children. Many other lay members of the Prayer Book Society have been an inspiration to me. I like to remind people that the first English martyr, St. Alban, was a layman! The Prayer Book Society over its existence has been fuelled by a certain amount of clergy fire, but it has been lay folk who have carried out the lion’s share of the organizational work. In fact there is something particularly lay-driven and lay-exemplary about English spirituality as a whole. And so, the examples of so many lay people saying their prayers, holding their Prayer Books, having it by their bedsides, continues to be deeply inspiring, and that’s the kind of devotion that I want to encourage and to be a part of.