Unchurching Common Prayer
“He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God”
There is the religion of Jesus in the heart, the religion of sentiment and feeling. There is, too, the religion of Jesus the moral policeman, the religion of outward conformity to the shifting demands of social and political correctness. Neither of them is the religion of the risen and ascended Christ who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”. And without the risen and ascended Christ, they are altogether empty and destructive, the religions of empty hearts and whitened sepulchres.
It is what happens when we try to reduce God to where we are rather than to be lifted up to where he is. Our lives are to be found in the “comings and goings” of God, not God merely in our comings and goings. There is all the difference in the world between these two perspectives: the one would make God subject to us; the other would place us with God in the revelation of his truth and love.
Our beginnings and our endings find their place in the “comings and goings” of God. Today is the Sunday after the Ascension. We celebrate the Ascension and the Session of Jesus Christ to “sit at the right hand of the Father”. There is in this a kind of ending, a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. All that pertains to our salvation has been accomplished. “It is finished” and “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. These are the last two words of Christ from the cross. In the Session, the risen and ascended Christ enters into the Father’s glory and so into the eternal rest of God.
“The end of all things is at hand”, says St. Peter, rather calmly, I think. The ending of all things is indeed celebrated in the Ascension and the Session of Christ. From there we await a new beginning, the descent of the Holy Spirit to keep us in the love and knowledge of what has been accomplished by Christ Jesus for us and which remains to be realised in us.
The Son enters into his rest having accomplished “the will of him who sent him”. He returns to glory and enters into glory. What does it signify for us? Only the meaning of our lives in prayer and praise; our lives in faith, hope and charity.
For Christ ascends and enters into the rest of God in the fullness of our humanity which he has assumed, restored and redeemed. He bears the marks of the crucifixion. They are now the prints of love. Nothing of the past is lost or ignored. All is gathered into glory. Our humanity has a place with God. We have an end in God. The new beginning that we celebrate at Pentecost belongs to the accomplishment of the Son’s salvation for us. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit would keep us in the knowledge and the love of God, come what may in the circumstances and accidents of our lives.
It is what has been communicated to us through the “comings and goings” of the Father’s Son and Word. We have at once an orientation and a destination. We have at once a direction and a place. In prayer and praise, in Word and Sacrament, in sacrifice and service, we participate in the “comings and goings” of God for us and enter into the promise of his rest in glory.
Our lives are lived to God and with God. The Ascension and the Session of Christ would remind us of this. The Creeds say and the Scriptures say that Christ “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”. It is the place, as one theologian once put it, that is “much to be preferred” and without which he cannot be in our hearts and cannot be the ordering principle of our lives morally, socially and politically. Only if we honour Christ in his Ascension and Session can we possibly know him, love him and serve him in our heart and in our lives.
The Session – Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty – recalls the sabbath rest of God after his six-day wonder in the work of creation. In both the sabbath and the session, what is meant is the enjoyment, the taking delight, in what has been accomplished: in the one, taking delight in creation itself, for “behold, it was very good”; and in the other, taking delight in the restoration of the whole creation through the redemption of our humanity in the risen and ascended Christ.
There is this difference, however. In the first, God takes delight in what he has made. In the second, there is the greater delight in the mutual love of the Son for the Father in the Holy Spirit into which love everything else finds its perfection and end. In the exaltation of the Son, there is “the exaltation of our humanity”. We have a direction. It is to God. We have a home. It is with God.
In the “comings and goings” of God, we find our purpose and our place – for our hearts and for all that our hearts contain. We have only to live it, in prayer and praise. In the lifting up of our hearts through him who has lifted up all things to the Father, we find our peace, our purpose and our place. It is “at all times and in all places” that we offer our prayers and praises to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. We live for God, with God and in God. Such is the grace of Christ’s Ascension and his grace is unto glory where Christ “sitteth on the right hand of the Father”.
But what do such considerations have to do with our Commemoration of the 450th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer? Because our endings and beginnings, our living to God and with God in the “comings and goings” of God, have their embodiment essentially and practically for Anglicans in the classical Book(s) of Common Prayer through which we have a way of being with Christ and without which we have no claim to being “an integral portion of the one Body of Christ composed of Churches which, united under the One Divine Head and in the fellowship of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”, as our Solemn Declaration of 1893 so splendidly puts it.
This is especially true for the Anglican Churches outside of England for which there is historically and theologically no other form to their Christianity except through the Book(s) of Common Prayer. It is only through the Common Prayer tradition that Anglicans have any real connection to the continuum of catholicity, to the consensus fidelium of basic Christianity, again as the Solemn Declaration puts it:
“hold[ing] the One faith revealed in Holy Writ and defined in the Creeds as maintained by the undivided primitive Church in the undisputed Ecumenical Councils; receiv[ing] the same Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as containing all things necessary to salvation; teach[ing] the same Word of God; partak[ing] of the same Divinely ordained Sacraments, through the ministry of the same Apostolic Orders; and worship[ing] One God and Father through the same Lord Jesus Christ, by the same Holy and Divine Spirit who is given to them that believe to guide them into all truth”.
It is a powerful statement. And how is it that Anglicans hold and maintain such principles of the Christian Faith? Through the Book of Common Prayer as we have received it from the Church of England in the Common Prayer tradition.
I don’t have to tell you how many of those principles of the Faith are in question today in the Anglican Communion and particularly in North America. At issue for Anglicans is whether we have the heart and the mind to will what we have been given and have received; in short, to honour our derivations and “to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity”. At issue is the form of our Christian identity.
We celebrate the 450th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer. To do so is to honour our derivations and to remind ourselves of who we are in the essential catholicity of the Christian faith. It is above all to give thanks to God and to pray for his providential mercy and grace that we may stand fast in the Faith that we have received through the form in which we have received it. Introduced on Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost, in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer has provided the shape and the framework of understanding for the Anglican way of being a Christian.
But what exactly is it that we celebrate? A book? A book is a static thing, an object. Surely it would be a kind of idolatry to celebrate something like a book. No. What we celebrate is a whole way of spiritual life, a pattern of prayer and praise which shapes our souls in the high things of God, a way of life that we grow up into. What we celebrate are the spiritual principles embodied in a collection of books which take their beginning from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, spiritual principles which define the Common Prayer tradition in the classical and authentic Book(s) of Common Prayer from 1549 right through to 1962, here in Canada.
Over and against that, stand the varieties of alternative liturgies, which may (or may not) be consistent with the essential principles of the Christian Faith, let alone the Common Prayer tradition, and which stand in varying degrees of ambivalence and animosity to that tradition. What is at issue here, I hasten to add, is not whether or not there can or should be forms of alternative liturgies, but whether they stand under and are compatible with the Book of Common Prayer as the standard and measure of doctrine and worship. Indeed, let me go one step further to point out that there can only be alternative liturgies for Anglicans as long as there is an authentic Book of Common Prayer. Without that we merely become a gnostic liturgical sect, subject to the whims and fantasies of the endless indeterminancies of identity politics, subject to the vain imaginations of our hearts and the vagaries of Synods without the restraint of the doctrinal magisterium of our Church embodied in the Book of Common Prayer.
But what are those crucial and critical principles of the Common Prayer tradition? I would like briefly to identify at least three of them for you. They are principles which we have been at pains to communicate to our Church but about which there has been the greatest unwillingness to hear, let alone think, often by so-called traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals alike. But then, much of the ministry is an “Ezekiel” ministry, as every pastor knows.
The formative role and place of the Creeds, the use and understanding of the Scripture and the interplay of Justification and Sanctification are three of the critical principles which define the Common Prayer tradition. These principles are unabashedly and unashamedly theological. I make no apologies for speaking theologically. The 450th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer is a theological celebration above all else. It is not simply a social event as if the Book of Common Prayer were merely a sociological phenomenon or a cultural artifact.
I want to show you something of each, but before doing so, I want to suggest, by way of a Scriptural illustration, something of what it would mean for us to take hold of these things and to live them. For we cannot celebrate a dead book but only a living way of being with Christ in the truth of the Gospel and in the integrity of that system of spiritual life as we have received it.
In the Book of Nehemiah, Ezra reads “the Book of the Law” before the people in the time of their return to Jerusalem and of their rebuilding of the city. It is, we may say, a kind of homecoming – a going up to Jerusalem after a time of exile and persecution. The scene signifies a sense of renewed commitment, a sense of purpose and identity. In many ways the scene anticipates something of the gospel procession in Christian liturgy.
“Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding”. The Word of God comes to us for our understanding. “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people”. It is not a closed book, not a book for a few but for all the people. It is opened out before us. “And when he opened it all the people stood”. It is held in honour and respect as the Word of God. And it is interpreted to the people. “And [the Levites] read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”. And in the presence of that Word proclaimed and explained there is both “weeping and rejoicing”. “With weeping they shall come”, Jeremiah says, too, but then “I will turn their mourning into joy”. Our hearts are convicted by what we hear and faith is born anew.
Is the Book of Common Prayer the Bible or a book of the law? By no means, but it is the form by which that Word has come to us and has been opened out in our midst. It is the Anglican way by which Scripture is to be understood in weeping and rejoicing, in penitential adoration and heartfelt devotion, in the pattern of spiritual life that belongs to our being with Christ, to our living in the presence of God’s Word and Son. It belongs as well to our critical engagement with the confusions and complexities of our contemporary culture; in short to our own confusions.
(1) The Formative Role and Place of the Creeds
The Creeds are altogether critical to that pattern of spiritual life. They are not only formal statements of the faith but formative principles. They shape us in what they state. Take a moment and look at the Book of Common Prayer, for example our 1962 Book of Common Prayer. Go through the whole of it and find how many times the Apostles’ Creed is printed in it. You will be surprised. There is as well the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds – these are understood as being essentially one with the Apostles’ Creed. I’m not going to tell you how many times the Creeds are present in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer – that’s your homework! But even more than the number of times that the Creeds are there, take note of the more important point of where and with what status the Creeds are there.
They are not optional parts of the Liturgy. Note that there is a distinction in the use of which creeds for which services: the Apostles’ Creed at the Offices and at Baptism (the Baptismal Creed which reminds us of our profession and identity in Christ); the Nicene Creed at the Holy Communion (the common Creed of our eucharistic fellowship); and the Athanasian Creed, somewhat more awkward for liturgical use, perhaps, and yet formerly mandated for use once a month on Sundays and on Trinity Sunday. It is now allowed for use at Morning Prayer on any Sunday of the month. The Creeds have a substantial place in the liturgy and they signal that the shape of the liturgy is really the shape of doctrine.
Note, too, that there are no alternatives to these classical and historic creeds. There are no “liturgical affirmations of the faith”, no substitutes or alternatives claiming the same doctrinal standing as the Creeds which they do not and cannot have. The Creeds state what we believe and they would shape our prayers, our praises, our mission and our life in the communion of the Trinity. They connect us to the whole body of Christ.
In stark contrast to the world of alternative liturgies, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer is credally grounded and credally shaped. These are words proclaimed by us all in order to shape us together in what we believe corporately and individually. They are ever objectively before us as what we subjectively identify with and only then can the Faith be our faith. They present a constant challenge; in short, to be what we believe. Fundamental to the consensus fidelium of the Universal Church, in other words to the essential catholicism of Christianity, they free us from the tyrannies of our subjective imaginations and the vanities of synodical pretensions.
They are the succinct expression and distillation of what the Scriptures essentially teach us about God who has revealed himself as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – the revelation to which all other scriptural images of God are subject – and about our humanity as incorporated into the life of God. Without the Creeds we cannot say what the Bible is or what the Faith is. They come out of the Scriptures in the very formation of the Canon of Scripture itself and they return us to the Scriptures within a framework of essential understanding through which to wrestle with the Word of God in our lives.
(2) The Use and Understanding of the Scriptures
This sensibility of the Scriptures as credally or doctrinally understood, what Cranmer and Hooker mean by Scripture as “a doctrinal instrument of salvation”, is one of the most obvious and most distinctive features of the Common Prayer tradition, and the most overlooked. It means that Scripture is primarily and fundamentally understood theologically to which every other kind of consideration – social, moral, political, historical and so on – is subordinate. Scripture is altogether primary with respect to “contain[ing] all things necessary to salvation”. It is not just one source of authority alongside other authorities regarded as having equal weight. There are necessary distinctions to be drawn between what pertains to our essential identity in Christ and what belongs legitimately to the various parts of our life in the body of Christ.
Once again, take your Prayer Book. Just thumbing through it, what is its most obvious and striking feature? Simply the sheer quantity of Scripture, ordered and presented to be read and prayed. Over half the book is comprised of the Collects, Epistles and Gospels together with the liturgical Psalter. The same cannot be said for most of the books of alternative liturgies currently on offer in the smorgasbord of consumer prayer, including of course the so-called 1979 American Book of Common Prayer. The exception is the Irish “Alternative Prayer Book, 1984” which prints a two-year eucharistic lectionary.
Cranmer did not invent the eucharistic lectionary, but he took what was received in the continuum of prayer and set it in the center of a book to be the pattern of our life together in Christ. He also improved upon it and clarified its logic in the light of the doctrinal understanding of Scripture. There were masterful translations of ancient prayers and new compositions in the language and images of Scripture shaped by its credal understanding.
It is, perhaps, not too much to say that the failure to attend to the credal or doctrinal understanding of Scripture embodied in the eucharistic lectionary has meant the loss of common prayer and, more seriously, the loss of the common faith for Anglicans. The eucharistic lectionary is, incidentally, the oldest and the most ecumenical part of the Book of Common Prayer. It is at the heart of the Common Prayer tradition.
For Cranmer and his successors, the Collects, Epistles and Gospels were critical to the project of opening out the Scriptures to everyone. They were opened out in the confidence of their doctrinal or credal understanding; in short, in the confidence of what they are and what they have to say about our identity with God in Christ. The Collects, Epistles and Gospels provide the interpretative framework for reading and praying the Scriptures in the pattern of the church year both at the daily offices and at the Sunday offices. They express the scriptural content of the formative pattern of common prayer.
(3) The Interplay of Justification and Sanctification
Out of the credal and doctrinal understanding of the Scriptures comes a whole pattern of spiritual life that is distinctive to Anglicans in the interplay between the two necessary and inescapable principles of our life in Christ – justification and sanctification. The way in which these two principles are held together is the counter to the subjectivism of a self-righteous private and merely personal faith, on the one hand, and the ghetto faith of “gathered communities” in their existential self-determinations, on the other hand. Without their interplay, churches become sects.
Justification is the principle of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection. Sanctification is the principle of Christ in us, the pattern of his death and resurrection in our lives of prayer and praise, sacrifice and service. They are wonderfully interrelated. The sacrament of baptism, like justification itself, is once only, and yet it calls us to a way of life with Christ. The sacrament of Holy Communion, something repeated and central to our lives, seeks the increase of the grace of Christ in us, to make us more Christ-like and holy, and yet it recalls us to the once only, “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction”of Christ for us.
These principles, too, are embodied in the eucharistic lectionary in the relation between the epistles and gospels – the gospel most often recalling something of what Christ has done for us; the epistle exhorting us to lay hold of the grace of Christ in our lives; in the logic of the epistles and gospels within and between each season of the year – for instance, in the first half of the year, “we run, as it were, through a great part of the Creed, by setting before us in an orderly manner the highest Mysteries of our Redemption by Christ” (Bp. Anthony Sparrow); in the second half of the year, the Creed runs through us, as it were, in the application of saving doctrine to the habits of moral and holy lives.
The interplay of justification and sanctification belongs to the organic quality of the Common Prayer tradition by constantly recalling us to the essentials of the Faith which give us our identity in Christ, at the same time by constantly calling us to a life with Christ in the world in witness, mission and service. They shape and inform the regular pattern of our prayer and praise in the counterpoint of contrition, confession and satisfaction so evident in our liturgy.
I have troubled you long and hard with difficult and theological things but they are the things which belong to our celebration and praise of what was inaugurated 450 years ago. I remind you of them because the Book of Common Prayer is not a recipe book for cooking up liturgies. It is not a liturgical resource book. When we use it that way – and we have – then we effectively treat it as a book of alternative liturgies – a collection of liturgical resources. We forget the living and organic character of liturgy itself, understood as a complete system of spiritual life and not just occasional acts of worship. We forget about the quality of our being with Christ.
Even more, I remind you of these things because we face, dare I say, almost a kind of ethnic cleansing in our church, an unchurching of the ethos of the Common Prayer tradition, in the idea of a composite book – a combination of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services, despite General Synod’s 1995 avowal not to revise the Prayer Book but only the BAS. This would signal, effectively and completely, that those who hold to our classical tradition in its fullness and truth, have no place in the church. A composite book will not and cannot be a Book of Common Prayer. The Collects, Epistles and Gospels – the eucharistic heart of the Common Prayer tradition – will certainly not be in it.
There is still no theological consensus in our church whereby there can be a revised Book of Common Prayer. The distinctive principles which I have presented are hardly understood. Again, I wish to reiterate that there can only be alternative liturgies if there is an authentic Book of Common Prayer which is their measure and standard with respect to essential doctrine. A composite book can hardly contain the plethora of cyberspace liturgies. It can accomplish no unity except by alienation.
No. To the contrary, we need to remember for ourselves, for our church, and for our world the living and organic form in which we have received the Christian faith. We need to remind ourselves of our place in the “comings and goings” of God, in the going forth and return of the Son to the Father in the bond of the Holy Ghost. One of the gifts of the Spirit to us is the Book of Common Prayer by which there is brought to our remembrance “all the words which [Jesus] has spoken to [us]” and by which we “are led into all truth”. Through the Book of Common Prayer we have a way of being with Christ who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty” as Scripture and Creed testify. Through the coming down of the Holy Spirit, we have been given a way of being with Christ in the lifting up of our hearts in the sacrifice of prayer and praise. That way for Anglicans is embodied in the Book of Common Prayer; it is our way of being with Christ in the body of Christ.
“He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God”
Fr. David Curry
Sunday after the Ascension
May 16, 1999
St. James the Apostle