The Prayer Book is a Real Book
In the present state of the church, every Episcopalian should hold the Prayer Book close. I mean this physically: the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a real book, and it is something that should be handled, used, suffer wear and tear, be carried about, and treasured.
Christianity is a physical religion. Especially in this emerging post-pandemic period we need to shout from the rooftops: People are bodies and spirits together. Come to church to see other people! Worship is more than a message: it is sacramental in itself. We cannot do baptism without water, nor Communion without bread and wine, nor marriage without holding hands, nor unction or ordination without the laying-on-of-hands.
It is a very short step from the physicality of worship to the following gift of the Episcopal Church: we have a Prayer Book, an actual, physical book. We need to handle it.
If you look at the physical Book, and not at a portion of it reprinted in a leaflet nor at an online version of it, you will see: Serious thought was given to how this Book looks. The font is elegant and simple. Pages are laid out intelligently. The capitalization of words reflects thought.
The structure of the Book also is intelligible. It opens with what “common prayer” has meant throughout Anglican tradition: forms of prayer for morning and evening. Then it goes through rites that pertain to various stages of a Christian life. We begin our Christian life in baptism. We are nourished in Communion. We are strengthened in confirmation. We fall short of our baptismal promises and can be restored through a rite of reconciliation. Marriage and illness are common parts of life for which the church offers guidance and prayer. And we all die.
But the Book has still more. It has the Ordinal, which lays out the terms and understanding of what the church is through its provision for ordained ministry. It has the Psalms in a translation that is modern and timeless—our specially good fortune as Episcopalians. An intelligent “outline” of Christian faith is developed over some twenty pages. Many other prayers are given for various moments and aspects of personal and social life.
Just a brief summary like this should show what a rich treasure our Book is. We need to encourage people to hold it in their hands, to have copies in their homes, to feel it and love it and use it.
Here comes the controversial point. If the Prayer Book is such a gift, why do we not teach and encourage people to use it? Why, in particular, is it so common for congregations to print out, or put online, the words of the service?
It cannot be because we feel saying something like “Please turn to page 355 in the red Prayer Book” is an interruption to the atmosphere of worship. Even with everything written out, one still hears “Please be seated” or “Let us stand to say the creed.”
I judge it is a leftover of the feeling, when the 1979 Book was new, that it is too complicated. It is undoubtedly more complicated than its predecessors. There are, for instance, two Rites for the Eucharist and, between them, six eucharistic prayers. And there are many other alternatives and some open-ended options. Easier for everybody, it is felt, to have these things laid out in a pre-printed leaflet.
Still, it seems to me we might pause and consider the difference of Episcopal worship today from 25 years ago, when most congregations instructed people to find the normal worship service in the Prayer Book.
There is a massive environmental cost in our increased use of paper and toner, and an increase in operating costs in producing the weekly leaflets. Quality control also becomes an issue. Misprints slip in. In addition, local changes to Prayer Book theology can be made without being noticed.
More fundamentally, worship is no longer a normal place for people to become familiar with the Book. We also lose those moments of divine serendipity, those occasions when people wander into other parts of the Book, discovering, perhaps, Christian views about death or understandings of the nation or the characteristics of evil to be renounced in baptism.
The 1979 Book does present challenges in its complexity. Still I believe we should be aware of what we have lost. Might it not be possible, as we return to physical togetherness in worship, that we find ways to worship with the physical Book in our hands?
Out & About. This Sunday, January 16, I am to speak at Good Samaritan church in Dallas on the parish as a school of friendship. That’s at 9:30, and I also will preach at 10:30 on the wedding at Cana.
Then at 5 p.m. at the church of the Incarnation in Dallas I will lead a seminar discussion of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. The seminar runs to 6:30 p.m. As I noted last week, with unadorned simple prose Paton’s classic takes us to apartheid-era South Africa, with an Anglican priest at the center of personal, social, political, and ecclesiastical tensions and worse. If you don’t know this book, you should; and if you do know it, it might be a good time to read it again.