The Prayer Book as a Guide
to Practical Christian Living
by John Matheson
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to he equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant…”
~ Philippians 2.5-7
The main object of the Christian religion is to bring about the union of the human spirit, intellect and will, with God. In his “Great High Priestly Prayer”, recorded in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples with one another, a unity that would reflect the unity that exists between the Father and the Son in the life of the Holy Trinity.
It must he said from the outset, then, that ultimately, the Christian religion is not “practical” in the ordinary sense of the word. “My kingdom is not of this world” (St. John 18.36), Jesus said, and although all sorts of good things should happen if one is faithful to Christ – churches may be built, the hungry fed, the sick and dying ministered to (and who can deny the importance of these things, when Jesus said; “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” St. Matthew 25.40), still, works of charity are but the manifestation of our unity with Christ: “I am the true vine”, Jesus said, “And my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may hear more ….. . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot hear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. . By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (St. John 15.1 ff.). Abiding in Jesus, union with God, is the end or purpose of Christian living.
I make this point at the beginning of my talk because one of the real problems in the mainline churches in North America today (and we must include the Anglican Church of Canada) is that over the last couple of generations, we have allowed that which is secondary, the application of Christianity, its “practical” expression, to become primary. And so we are members of an “activist” and “issue-oriented” church which spends much of its time and energy addressing controversial causes which are best left to the politicians. “Doing” has become an end in itself, and the doing is not always the result of an abiding in Jesus, or of having his mind, but is rather the expression of a secular spirit adopted by our Church’s leadership. The “world” has been allowed to set the church’s agenda. To turn an old addage on its head, the Church has become so earthly minded that it is no heavenly good!
But is this what Christ wants? Is it what the average Christian needs? We are all trying to muddle through a most confusing time, looking for moral guidance, to conform our souls to heaven. But neither we as individuals, nor as a Church will be reformed or see the way, unless we learn to think like Christ, to have his mind, abiding in him until our knowing and our willing is one with his. We have to recover a Christian way of thinking so that we can know how to act as Christians. (“I am the vine, you are the branches.”) It is important to have an opinion about native rights and the constitution, even more important to have an opinion about abortion, euthanasia and sexual morality. But first of all, we must have a knowledge of our relation to our God and Father – sinners who were once lost who are now being sanctified, being recreated in the image of his Son, Jesus.
How is this to be achieved? How does the Prayer Book and the Prayer Book tradition of spirituality allow us to develop as mature Christians so that our intellect and wills are “in tune” with God? This is how. Prayer Book spirituality allows us to have the ‘mind of Christ’ primarily by presenting the revelation of himself to us in his written Word.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (St. Matthew 11.25-28) The Anglican Church considers the Bible. “God’s Word written” (Article XX), and that it contains “all things necessary to salvation” (Article VI). What we ought to know about God’s nature and his will for us is found in Holy Scripture. Meeting that goal was the primary motivation of the 16th century reformers of the liturgy of the Church of England. Two scholars of very divergent background and churchmanship agree on this. Robert Crouse of King’s College in Halifax has written, “The first principle, I think, in the mind of our Reformers, was that the liturgy must conform to the clear Word of God in Holy Scripture.” (The Prayer Book, St. Peter Publications, page 7) And Roger Beckwith of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford has written:
“…Cranmer not only modelled his services in general on the principles and teaching of the Bible, and drew lessons and psalms and canticles from that source, but as far as possible constructed his very prayers out of the words and phrases of the Bible, to an extent unexampled in liturgical history, either before or since.” (The Prayer Book, St. Peter Publications, page 77).
The Book of Common Prayer encourages us to conform our intellects and wills to the Word of God, first of all, by providing a means by which we may come into immediate contact with God through the reading of his Word. Putting the Holy Bible, in the language of the people, into the hands of the people was one of the battles Cranmer fought with King Henry. The lectionary provided in the Prayer Book for the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, if used faithfully, in combination with the Psalter and the Sunday lectionary, makes that essential, immediate contact possible.
But the Prayer Book lectionary does not simply divide the Bible up into “bite-sized” chunks and ask us to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in the course of a year. Nor does it, like the reading guides provided by the Bible Society and others divide the readings along thematic lines (‘When you are lonely’; ‘In times of temptation’; ‘In times of rejoicing’). The Prayer Book provides us with a method of reading the Bible liturgically, that is to say, as a Church, God’s family. The reading of Isaiah and Revelation in Advent season, for example, is appropriate because both speak of the coming of the Lord, as Saviour and as Judge. Genesis is read in pre-Lent, in order to prepare our minds and hearts to understand the great doctrine of the Atonement, set out for us in Passiontide and Easter, and so on. Thus if we are reading the Bible together as a Church, we cannot help but establish something of a common mind, the common ground on which thought and discussion can take place.
But the sad fact is that we Anglicans are no longer a Bible-reading people. We need to read the Bible together, and study it together so that we can revive the common vocabulary with which to communicate as a Church family about vital doctrinal and moral questions.
In his preface to An Introduction to the Prayer Book, Archdeacon Vroom quotes Bishop John Medley, the first Bishop of Fredericton: “The Book of Common Prayer… a book so scriptural that it is full of scripture from one end to the other…” (p. v) Cranmer’s genius was the poetic way in which he turned scriptural images into prayers, to make them so memorable that they have become part of our cultural heritage and easily become part of our soul’s very substance.
In this regard, I always think of the “Prayer of Humble Access”, a prayer I committed to memory at an early age – “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord…” This is a prayer obviously inspired by the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus to beg him to heal her daughter. When Jesus refuses her on the grounds that she is not a Jew, she responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (St. Matthew 15.27; St. Mark 7.28) Committed to my memory in its poetic form, this prayer teaches me something about myself and all of mankind in the healing of our souls because He is a merciful God. Or think of the call to confession contained in the Morning Prayer service. “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.” Shouldn’t this make us think of the passages of Scripture in which we are told that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the Bishop and Shepherd of our souls?
Not all of the prayers the Book of Common prayer can be tied to particular passages of Scripture so directly, but certainly each prayer can be supported in its sentiment by Scripture and so in poetic form be seen to reinforce what has been learned by reading the Scriptures per se. Can this be said of modern liturgies? To quote Roger Beckwith again: “If you compare the Prayer Book with some of the modern services, like those authorised in England, which, though written in modern English, were drawn up on a declared principle of “studied ambiguity”, and so fail even to be truly intelligible; and when they are intelligible, have often only the vaguest relationship with the language or meaning of Scripture; the contrast could scarcely be more complete.” (The Prayer Book, St. Peter Publications, page 77).
Thirdly, the Book of Common Prayer presents the teaching of Scripture in what might be called a reflective or theological way. This is done most obviously in the Creeds and the Catechism, all of which are the distillation of the Church’s reflection on Holy Scripture, the acquiring of God’s ‘mind’, a kind of abiding in him. But the teaching of Scripture in this developed form is found not only in those parts of the Prayer Book that are obviously confessional and didactic, but is found in the various pastoral offices as well. These services took the form in which we have them, in the sixteenth century, but they certainly have been amended and augmented since then, and can be again. They were the result of a long development, and continue to evolve putting us in touch with the full sweep of Western Christian spirituality. “The Book of Common Prayer”, says Martin Thornton in his classic, English Spirituality, “is fundamental to our understanding of all ages of English spirituality. It is the development and consummation of our patristic and biblical tradition, it embodies principles for which the fourteenth-century asceticists had been groping, and in its final form it is the product of the Caroline age.” (page 257). The Book of Common Prayer Dr. Thornton was referring to was of course the Prayer Book of 1662; our Canadian Book has had two revisions, in 1918 and 1959. The Prayer Book has been revised for use in Canada, but future revisions must be consistent with the Prayer Book tradition; it is not just an “aid to worship”, but is also the standard of doctrine and a moral guide.
Our Lord would have us “abide” in him. St. Paul would have us acquire the “mind” of Christ so that we might be, like Jesus, servants of God. The Book of Common Prayer provides a means by which we may do this, by presenting the Word of God, God’s revealing of himself to us, by the simple reading of Scripture in a systematic way, by allowing scriptural images and principles to enter our souls through the poetry of its prayers, canticles and Psalms, and by giving instruction in the liturgical use of the creeds and in the pastoral offices.
He is the vine, we are the branches; it is only if we allow ourselves to be incorporated into his life by being formed by his Word that we can hear fruit, that is to say, live practical Christian lives, to his honour and glory. Read your Bibles, say your prayers, believe your confessions of faith, heed the exhortations and instructions found in your Prayer Book, be faithful to the vows you have taken from it, and you will please God and find eternal blessedness.
This article is based on addresses given by Canon Matheson during a speaking tour for the Society in the dioceses of New Westminster, Cariboo, Kootenay, Edmonton, Athabasca and Calgary, May 1992.