We Need to Hold the Prayer Book Close

    In the present state of the church, every Episcopalian should hold the Prayer Book close. By “Prayer Book” I mean the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. It is a solidly orthodox volume, and we need to recognize both that it is orthodox and that it is a volume. This, I believe, is a necessary and good foundation for our part in the rejuvenation of Christianity in our time. Holding the BCP close needs to be a high priority for us especially during the pandemic. I intend to write about it often in this year of our Lord 2022.
    First, we need to deal with confused thoughts that still linger. The 1979 Book was seen as a radical departure from the BCP tradition. Most obviously, contemporary language was used and, for some rites, especially the Eucharist, multiple options were given.
    With the perspective of a few decades’ distance, however, we can see that “radical” puts it too strongly. “Radical” means “root” (I tell students: Think of “radish”). And it is not true that the 1979 Book changed us at the root.
    Prayer Book language had been slightly changed in each of the previous Prayer Books, as both words and theological understandings changed in meaning. At Saint Thomas Church in New York City, as the Psalms were sung from the 1662 Book, I would follow along in the 1928. There were many subtle differences, some having to do, I believe, with better understanding of the Hebrew, others with simple changes in the meaning of certain English words.
    For other instance, consider the intercession in the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church in the Eucharist. In 1928, largely as a result of the scale of the deaths of soldiers in the Great War, a new petition was added for “those who have departed this life in thy faith and fear.” This is, I would argue, not a new thing—not a change from not praying for the dead to doing so—but rather an explication of a theological point that had been less pronounced in earlier Books.
    Initially, contemporary language felt shocking. But the contemporary words of the 1979 Book have proven, in most cases, to be graceful and noble vehicles for our prayers. I have written before (and will doubtless do so again) of the elegance of the Psalms in the 1979 Book. We have the best modern language Psalter of any English church anywhere on the globe. And in some cases it is surpassingly better than our older Psalter. I would rest my case with the first line of Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” That line is sheer perfection.
    I say, let us have no more loose talk about a lack or an abandonment of traditional or orthodox Christian belief in the 1979 Book. I hope that readers who think there is heterodoxy in the Book will write me. We can look at particular cases that are found troubling, and see what is there.
    In the meantime, I intend to argue next week that we need to hold close to the 1979 Prayer Book as an actual volume, a physical Book. I expect this to be highly controversial. Stay tuned!
    Out & About. I am teaching the ethics class for the Stanton Center. It meets on five Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The first class is January 15. Drop me a line if you’re interested.
    Sunday, January 16, at Incarnation at 5 p.m., the Good Books & Good Talk seminar meets to discuss Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. If you read the book you’re welcome to come and talk. If not, you’re welcome to come and listen! It’s a classic set in apartheid-era South Africa, with an Anglican priest at the center of personal, social, political, and ecclesiastical tensions and worse.

What the Body Knows

 In Losing Susan I wrote about something that happened to me at a point when Susan was in a nursing home. I interpreted it via the interlude that Saint Luke puts into the healing of Jairus’ daughter. As Jesus heads to Jairus’ home, a woman in the surrounding crowd touches his body. She has been ill for a dozen years. She figures that Jesus’ body itself has healing power, and so she touches his garment from behind. She experiences immediate healing.

Jesus knows it, but not with his mind. He asks who has touched him. His disciples think it a dumb question: Lots of people have touched you! But Jesus  has felt power go out from him. He has a knowledge that comes to him through his body. He knows, through his body, that he has healed someone, and the healing has happened before he has any mental activity. His body knew something before his mind thought it.

What had happened to me was this. I was at a meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the U.S. At the end of the first day, at a pre-dinner reception, I had felt hot and strange, with tingling in an arm and around my mouth. I phoned my insurance company’s advice nurse. She soon asked if there were someone who could take me to an emergency room. She didn’t say, but I suspected she thought I might be having a heart attack; I wondered the same. In the emergency room they quickly ruled that out, did another test or two, waited for the results, and everything seemed fine. In due course the doctor came to speak to me. He asked if I had changed any medications lately, or if there was anything different in my life. No, I said, medications are few and unchanged, and my life is fine. Well, I added, actually, my wife was in the hospital for most of January and now she’s in a nursing home. And I started crying.

It is the doctor’s gentleness that I remember, his loving voice. He called my doctor, who said I was to phone the next day and come see him the day after that.

I had thought I was doing so well, that I was on top of caring for my wife, that everything was just fine! I was not only on top of all the things being done with and for her, I also was taking care of my body, and I was keeping up with church, and I was even participating in an important ecumenical dialogue. I thought: Everything is just fine! I can handle this!

And my body spoke. Nope, it said.

It knew something that I was not conscious of. I was afraid Susan would never come home. I was afraid that she would have to be institutionalized and would never get better. My world, in which I thought I was working so well, was in fact like one of those dream rooms where you go to lean against a wall and discover it’s just tissue paper. The wall gives way, and you start to fall, and nothing stops you from falling: you just keep going down. If I was refusing to see these things with my mind—and I was—well, my body was going to assert its own knowledge.

The human body has its own knowledge. It was true for Jesus; it’s true for us. And while mine told me of the awful depletion of my strength, Jesus’ body irradiated the strength of his healing power. In each case, something was going out, and in each case, we knew it after the fact.
These thoughts have come to mind as I have been reading Is It All in Your Head?, a book by a neurologist who practices in the U.K., Suzanne O’Sullivan. While giving no evidence of Christian faith, Sullivan shows wonderful humility and human wisdom in her accounts, in this book, of how illness can be real (as it was in my case, although only fleetingly) without there being a physical disease. Our thoughts and our bodies are mysteriously related. Which is to say, in theological terms, our soul and our body are linked by pathways deeper than we can know.
As we come to the festival of the Nativity, it is good to remember that in his humanity Jesus is just like us. He has a human soul and a human body, marvelously connected. He is completely human.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."