Two Services and Two Continents –
A Vision of the Church Catholic
By the Revd. Gordon Maitland, PBSC National Chairman
As readers of this publication know well already, this year (2012) marks the 50th anniversary of the last Canadian revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and the Prayer Book Society of Canada (PBSC) has been organizing events to celebrate this milestone. However, the year 2012 also marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, the edition still recognized as the authorized one in England. Thus, an event to celebrate the heritage of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer took place in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England, on Wednesday May 2 of this year. While most congregations in the Church of England now make use of modern alternative liturgies of some sort, the Book of Common Prayer is still regarded as a part of the national heritage of England, and because the Church of England is a State Church the celebration marking the anniversary of the 1662 Prayer Book had the nature of a state occasion. Thus, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London were in attendance, as well as Charles, Prince of Wales (who is the National Patron of the English Prayer Book Society) and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Needless to say, I was honoured and excited when I received a personal invitation from the English Prayer Book Society to attend this event because of my role as Chair of the Canadian Society. My excitement increased when I received a subsequent invitation to vest in choir habit and take part in the service of Evensong (as it turned out I was the only foreigner to be vested and to sit in the chancel). The past chairman of the PBSC, Fr. David Harris, was invited to attend, and several other Canadians received invitations as well. This invitation also included an opportunity to meet the Prince of Wales at a reception following the service.
On Tuesday, May 1, I flew from Windsor to Toronto and then on to London, England. My checked bag was fairly heavy given the fact that I had to pack my cassock and vestments, as well as all my clothes. It was just after midnight when I arrived at my spartan hotel in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood of London. I discovered later that Charles Dickens’ old house was just around the corner. I managed to sleep in a little bit and spent most of the morning getting things ready for the afternoon. I took a taxi to St. Paul’s Cathedral and arrived there about 2:00 p.m. The security people at the door were surprised that I was there so early for a service which didn’t begin until 5:00 p.m., but I wanted a chance to tour around, check out the gift shop, and see the special exhibition of old Prayer Books which had been set up in one of the side aisles. At a little after 3:00 p.m. the cathedral staff began to usher the tourists out of the cathedral and I retreated to the “Dean’s aisle” to avoid a similar fate. By 3:30 p.m. the tourists were gone and the final preparations began for the service. A phalanx of security people arrived in advance of the royal couple to check the place out, while I was rehearsed by one of the cathedral vergers as to where I was going to sit and how I was going to get there in a dignified manner. In the time that remained before Evensong I put on my cassock, surplice, tippet, and hood, and chatted with the bishops and clergy who were also vesting and taking part in the service. Many of the clergy taking part were members of the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Church of England, and they had come out in full force to support the celebration. At a few minutes before 5:00 p.m. the choir appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and we all lined up ready to enter the cathedral. A prayer was said with the choir, but was barely audible over the roar of the organ prelude. At exactly 5:00 p.m. we began to process into the nave, which was packed with people right to the back of the church. The chance to take part in this procession alone was an awesome experience and I took my place in the chancel very close to the choir. As soon as we were in the chancel the royal party were ushered to their seats in the nave and the service began.
The hymns were familiar “barnburners” and the service music was exquisite. The psalms were simply those appointed for the day but the readings were especially chosen for the occasion. The choir sang a beautiful anthem which was followed by the prayers. The Bishop of London preached an excellent and upbeat sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the blessing, and the service ended with the singing of “God Save the Queen”. After processing out of the cathedral I removed my surplice and proceeded down to the crypt for the receptions. I was privileged to be in a small private reception with the royal couple and had a short conversation with both the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. We then joined the main reception where I had an opportunity to have a brief chat with the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as consume four or five glasses of champagne.
Very early on Friday morning I got to the airport for a flight to Toronto and, after a brief layover, caught the next flight to Saskatoon to take part in the Annual General Meeting of the PBSC. In Saskatoon I was met by other executive members from the PBSC and the five of us drove in two rented vehicles to Prince Albert. Once in Prince Albert we barely had time to check into the hotel before we were off to the National Council meeting which was taking place at the Diocesan offices. While there the Bishop’s secretary assured us that the ice had just broken up on the lake at La Ronge, and consequently we would be able to make it to the island opposite to see the historic Trinity Church on the following day. After a late supper, I was passed out in bed by 9:30 p.m.
At 8:00 a.m. the next morning everyone assembled at the Diocesan offices and we left in a convoy of vehicles for Stanley Mission, which was a 3 ½ hour drive north of Prince Albert. After a couple of stops along the way, we arrived in Stanley Mission at 12:30 p.m. After a brief lunch, the Annual General Meeting of the Prayer Book Society of Canada was duly held and at the end of the meeting I was presented with a Cree edition of the Book of Common Prayer. We then made our way down to the lakeshore, to small motor boats which ferried us over to the island, where we climbed the hill to Holy Trinity Church for a service of Evensong. We kept our coats on as the church was unheated and it was a cool overcast day. A large number of Cree people joined us for the celebration. Except for the psalms and readings, which were those appointed for Saturday evening in the week of the 3rd Sunday after Easter, the rite was the same one that had been celebrated a few days earlier in London, England. The service was mostly in English, with some Cree; the sermon was delivered by the Archdeacon and was half in English and half in Cree; the hymns were all sung in Cree. I can now say that I have sung “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages” in one of the languages of our First Nations people!
On Sunday I went to the cathedral in Prince Albert for a celebration of Holy Eucharist and spent the rest of the day napping and catching up on email correspondence. I flew home to Windsor on Monday, having been in two different time zones, seven hours apart, in the space of less than a week. I survived to relate to you the experiences narrated above. Both of the events which took place during the above trip were transformational in their own way. They were both once-in-a-lifetime opportunities which will probably never come my way again. As such, I cherish and relish the memories and encounters which were a part of the whole experience. What I want to focus on by way of reflection is the fact that there were services of Evensong in both of the disparate locations described in the first part of this article. Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer was celebrated under radically different circumstances only a few days apart and yet it was basically the same service. One celebration took place in the huge metropolitan capital of a European city, while the other celebration took place on an island far from any city; the one celebration took place in an elaborate stone cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren and adorned with gold leaf, while the other celebration took place in a wooden church designed by an unknown Victorian architect and adorned with brightly coloured paint and hangings on the altar, pulpit and lectern made of moose hide decorated with beautiful and intricate patterns of native beadwork; the one celebration had singing led by a large professional choir and accompanied by a grand organ, while the other celebration had only the voices of the worshippers accompanied by a battery powered keyboard. Both services were moving and joyous in their own way; both services were authentic in their worship of the Almighty; both services were the Church at prayer.
The image that constantly came to mind as I pondered what had taken place over the course of the first week of May comes from the Book of Revelation (7:9-12): After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Just as the Eucharist is the foretaste of the eschatological banquet of the redeemed, so too I felt that worshipping in two very different locations, with two different communities of people, far from home, gave me a wonderful sense that I had had a foretaste of the eschatological Church singing together as portrayed in the mystical vision from Revelation quoted above. This is what it means to belong to the Church Catholic – to have a sense that one is united with other Christians by baptism in the mystical Body of Christ despite the differences in language, ethnicity, culture, gender, and whatever other categories divide us as human beings. The experiences I had on my trip are a reminder of how parochial we can be in our own little church communities and how important it is to know that one is connected to a much larger and universal Church. I also can’t help but think of Jesus’ well-known prayer in chapter 17 of John’s gospel where he prays to the Father “that they may be one, even as we are one”. The desire for Christian unity is only strengthened and made more urgent by encountering Christians from very different walks of life.
The fact that the same service was used in two different settings two continents apart also points to the role that liturgical rites can have in fostering Christian unity. It is not just the use of ecumenical Creeds that can bind disparate Christians together. The fact that communities can use a liturgical rite which is familiar to a wide range of people helps to foster the sense that we really are united by the Holy Spirit into one fellowship of believers.
Evensong endures as one of the most popular services in the Book of Common Prayer. Its structure is easily grasped, it is not too long, and there is ample opportunity for congregational participation. There is over 450 years of musical resources to draw on to enrich the service as well: settings of the psalms and canticles, as well as plainsong settings of the versicles and responses. The service can be said or sung throughout, as desired. It is not entirely remarkable, then, that one of the great Roman Catholic liturgists of the 20th century, Louis Bouyer, could write: “… we must admit frankly that the Offices of Morning Prayer and of Evensong, as they are performed even today in St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, York Minster, or Canterbury Cathedral, are not only one of the most impressive, but also one of the purest forms of Christian common prayer to be found anywhere in the world”.
A liturgical rite which is more than 450 years old (and is compiled from material much older than that) has a role to play in uniting Anglican Christians from widely different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Encountering other, very different, peoples is transformative in itself; worshipping with other peoples is nothing less than a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. My experiences during the first week of May this year only strengthen my conviction that the Book of Common Prayer continues to be a valuable asset for the Anglican Communion as a whole and one of the bonds which unites us together.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Michaelmas 2012)