Friday, August 31, 2012

The 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

"All things should be done decently and in order."
~St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 14:40

This morning, while idly perusing the blog of Paul Barnett, New Testament scholar and former Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, I came upon his post on 2012 being the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  Why this anniversary had slipped my mind is anybody's guess.  Perhaps it was because the BCP is largely the work of the great Thomas Cranmer, who published the first two editions back in 1549 and 1552.  Nevertheless, having been reminded, I would like to reflect a bit on this treasure which, in God's providence, has been bequeathed to English-speaking Christians and has exerted immeasurable influence far beyond the confines of the Anglicanism that produced it.

I grew up attending an IFCA (a group I often, and only partly in jest, refer to as "I Fight Christians Anywhere") church that uncharacteristically, and thankfully, derived its order of service from two former Presbyterian pastors.  When, during my undergraduate days, I often attended Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, I felt right at home despite the ecclesial and theological differences from how I had been raised that marked Tenth Church out as confessionally Presbyterian.  This was the type of church service I could really appreciate: solidly traditional, with a solemn formality and ample room for active participation by the worshipper, meaty hymns, recitation of the creed, prayer, Bible reading and, above all, expository preaching.

Of course I was aware other forms of worship existed.  My father often supplemented his Bible College professor income by preaching on Sundays, most often at independent or Baptist churches, which were decidedly less formal yet, strangely enough, appeared to be less existentially gripping.  The parts of the service I had always loved  the old hymns, the prayers, Bible readings, and creeds  were viewed, and sometimes even referred to, as "preliminaries" to the real point of the service, viz., the sermon, which too often rambled on for 45 minutes or more.  When I arrived in Dallas for graduate education in 1979, I was shocked to find every church I attended to be like this.  So it was no surprise to me when the evangelical churches started abandoning what they thought were "traditional" worship services to the new-fangled, informal and entertainment-oriented "praise and worship" services that today scar the ecclesial landscape from sea to shining sea.  

I wasn't satisfied then, and I am no more sanguine today about such schlock masquerading as "worship."  Unfortunately, all too many Christians don't know there are alternatives (and, I'm afraid, many simply aren't equipped with the experiential framework within which to appreciate such alternatives when they encounter them).  I would like to suggest that the services enshrined in the BCP provide us with perhaps the best of these alternatives, providing worship that is, in the best sense, evangelical, catholic, and Reformed.

One need not be an Anglican to use or benefit from this work.  I remember my father, a staunch advocate of ecclesiastical independency, speaking highly of it in my youth.  I also remember F. F. Bruce, a lifelong member of the Plymouth Brethren, writing in his autobiography that he kept a copy of it on his desk and read it faithfully.  I purchased my own copy of the BCP at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in June 1988, and often I have used it as a framework for my own Bible reading and "devotional" life.  One of the geniuses of the work is that it provides for morning and evening services each day of the year as well as for weekly Eucharistic services, services for special days on the yearly church calendar, and services for special occasions of life, such as birth, marriage, and death (the matchless phraseology of the last two of which are familiar to just about all English-speakers to this day).  The strength of the BCP, however, goes well beyond its comprehensiveness and glorious diction, which has exerted such a major influence on the English language (arguably, the three greatest influences remain the King James Bible, the BCP, and the works of Shakespeare).  Briefly, I would like to list three such strengths, the merits of which can hardly be disputed.

First, the BCP is dominated by Scripture.  Nondenominational Protestants in America often have designated their assemblies as "Bible churches."  I have even attended some such churches from time to time.  But I have often reflected on the irony that so many "Bible churches" have, so as to "save time," eliminated systematic Bible reading from their liturgies, and have replaced systematic expository preaching of large portions of Scripture with "practical," topical messages which often use the text to validate points derived from other sources.  By contrast, some 70% of the language of the BCP is directly sourced in Scripture, and each service has two Scripture readings ("lessons") which cover the vast majority of Holy Writ. By contrast, the saccharine, emotion-drenched entertainment provided in so much contemporary "worship" leaves me cold.

Second, the BCP provides exemplars of intelligent, theologically-informed prayer.  Another of the ironies of American evangelicalism is its distaste for liturgical, "written-down" prayer.  "You're just reciting other people's words," I'm often told.  Even worse, some have even said such prayers are examples of "vain repetition," somehow ignoring that Jesus warned against such repetition in the context of teaching his disciples the Lord's prayer (Matt 6:5-15).  But the historic prayers preserved and composed by Cranmer are models of brevity and theological clarity that certainly can be used either as is or as models for public (and private prayer) by Christians today.  Public prayer is becoming a lost art in American Christianity.  To be sure, there are some who maintain the practice admirably, such as Michael Rogers of Westminster Presbyterian in Lancaster, PA.  But all too often, in my experience, public prayer is an embarrassment of shallowness and incoherence, as exemplified by an opening  prayer I once heard at a megachurch from a "worship leader" whose introductory "Oh God" sounded like a painful expletive.

Finally, the BCP provides an explicitly sacramental liturgy.  Sunday worship climaxes, as it ought, with the celebration of Holy Communion, the "visible Word" instituted by Jesus to complement the spoken/written Word of the Gospel. (In this regard N. T. Wright has often made the trenchant observation that Jesus, in order to explain the significance of his coming death, didn't articulate a "theory" of the atonement; he gave his disciples a meal.)  This is one area where my Presbyterian church could learn a few things from the Anglicans.  Celebrating the table of the Lord on a quarterly basis is simply inexcusable for a church that prides itself on being "biblical."  As it happens, they are not only departing from historic church practice, they even are departing from Calvin, who (rightly) believed that the Eucharist should be celebrated every time the Word is proclaimed.  Alas, however, my Presbyterians followed the advice of Geneva's City Council rather than their pastor!

Much more could be said, however.  But enough, I hope, has been said to encourage some to pick the BCP up and use it for their own spiritual nourishment (if you do, make sure to buy the British version [still the 1662 edition] or an American edition prior to the revisions of 1979).  When the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians to conduct their worship gatherings  "for edification" (1 Cor 14:26) and "decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40), he certainly did not foresee Cranmer's masterpiece  indeed, the differences involved are transparent with even a cursory reading — but he would have approved nonetheless.

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