St. Paul’s conflicts and our own: A sermon on Prayer Book Revision for Proper 9B, 2018

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Austin, TX. It takes place every three years, bringing together bishops, lay and clerical deputies from every diocese to oversee the life of our church. It is the ultimate governing authority of the Episcopal Church, so it has the final say over matters of doctrine, governance, and even our worship.

On Friday, the House of Deputies passed a resolution authorizing comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Last accomplished in 1979, prayer book revision is always challenging, time-consuming, full of conflict. While the current timeline suggests the completion of the work in a decade or so, it may be that like our conversations and conflicts over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including marriage, will dominate our common life as a denomination for the next decade. It’s worth pointing out that for this process to move forward, the House of Bishops will also have to approve the resolution for prayer book revision.

If you are interested in these matters, I invite you to join me later this morning in the library where I will answer questions and offer opportunity for your reflections. In the meantime, I would like to ask you a few questions:

  • How many of you own a book of common prayer?
  • For those of you who own one, do you know where it is? When was the last time you opened it?

In my experience as an Episcopalian, lay and priest, it’s my sense that we tend to have a great emotional attachment to the book of common prayer as a symbol, and also to the language of the liturgy, but that most of us don’t engage with it in any significant way in our personal spiritual lives or with the theological perspectives offered there. That is to say, we are not “shaped” by its theology and spirituality, as we are intended to be.

The presenting issues for revision are fairly clear. Many of us struggle with the gendered language in the liturgy and in the Psalter, and we also struggle with the patriarchal and hierarchical language. In addition, there are debates about the revising the marriage rite in the BCP to make it inclusive of same gender couples. But once you begin looking at revising the text, certain theological debates will quickly explode—the atonement, for example.

So, we are going to be enmeshed in conversation and most likely conflict in the coming years as we discuss and implement liturgical revision. It’s going to be heated, both on the denominational level, and quite likely, here at Grace, and thinking about how we have those conversations, how disagree with each other, will be an important part of the process.

It’s fortunate, then, that we have before us this reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. For in it he discusses both his own spiritual experience and addresses the deep and bitter conflict in which he has been engaged with this little group of Christians he founded years earlier.

We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.

Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.

This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.

He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.

Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.

We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.

So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.

We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Sometimes, we think we know it all. Sometimes, we think our perspective is the right one, the only legitimate one. Certainly, Paul thought that a great deal of the time. But at the heart of this text is a very different experience and understanding—that power is made perfect in weakness; that in Christ’s weakness and suffering, we see God. Paul was trying to say that what mattered most was not education, or background, or intellectual capacity, or ability to debate and score points. What matters most is Christ crucified.

It’s an important, perhaps the most important thing to comprehend as we try to grow more deeply in our Christian faith; but it may also be the most important thing to remember as we engage in conversation and find ourselves in disagreement with our fellow Christians. To be open and vulnerable to them, to recognize, like Paul, that whatever the experience and knowledge we have from Christ, there are things about it we can’t share with others, parts of it we can’t describe or name.

And to bring that openness and vulnerability as we listen to each other, as we hear their experiences, their joy and pain, may help us all of us to grow more deeply in the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ. I hope we experience this next season in the life of our congregation and the larger church as an opportunity for growth and building deeper relationships among ourselves and through those experiences to welcome and embrace those who seek to walk with us on this journey.

 

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Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928 BCP. I remember a few people at my former parishes in the South who did. There, I assumed it was partly an identity marker—Baptists always carried their bibles with them to church; so it would be natural for Episcopalians to distinguish themselves from other Christians by carrying their BCPs.

That got me thinking about the Book of Common Prayer as a book, and about the already much debated idea of “prayer book revision.” My primary experience of the Book of Common Prayer is no longer as a “book,” and I assume the same holds true for most Episcopalians. I use an app for the Daily Office; when I preside at worship, I either use the printed or electronic service bulletin, or an electronic book of common prayer on my ipad. My prayer book hymnal combination is used primarily as a hymnal, although I do take it with me on pastoral visits, I suspect largely because of its symbolic power both for myself and for the one I am visiting.

My copy was given me by the parish in which I became a Postulant for Holy Orders. It is well-worn, the binding is now ripped. I have worshiped with it nearly every Sunday for almost twenty years. I have prayed from it at bedsides and at gravesides. Its feel in my hands is etched in my memory. It is an old friend but also a frustrating annoyance. Liturgical forms that I use regularly but not included in the Book of Common Prayer are taped in the endpapers and constantly fall out. The post-its and tabs I’ve added to help me find my place go missing and I end up leafing through to find what I’m looking for. It is impossible for me to read the text or hymns in less than ideal lighting. For all of those reasons I have come to rely on digital versions for private devotion and presiding.

The Book of Common Prayer is a product of print culture. From the beginning, it was a particularly adaptation of the liturgy to print culture. Both in its use of the vernacular and in its emphasis on “common” prayer, i.e. that the same text was used by clergy and laity, and it was used throughout England, it helped to unify the English Church and shape Anglican piety.

The unifying power of the Book of Common Prayer both in fact and symbolically, may partially explain why prayer book revision has always been a challenging project. I wonder now whether, in the twenty-first century the call for prayer book revision holds symbolic power precisely because of the lingering appeal of the symbolic power of a Book of Common Prayer. Advocates for revision point to its lack of inclusive language, the dominance of the theology of substitutionary atonement, the need for a new marriage rite, among its many other shortcomings. I agree with all of this.

But to conceive of liturgical reform and renewal as “prayer book revision” seems to me to be remarkably shortsighted when we are in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be transforming the way human beings interact with each other, with authorities of all sorts (including textual authority) and with meaning-making.

Print culture establishes an authoritative text and tends toward uniformity and conformity. The Book of Common Prayer is appealing in part because of the appeal of a shared liturgy across space and time. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Tridentine Mass suppressed local traditions just as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer shaped the Church of England.

By their very nature, books, being bound, create distinctions between what is included and what is excluded. If a text exists primarily in electronic form, there is a sense in which it is ephemeral, it cannot be fixed or authoritative and it invites a more organic relationship between reader and text. It also creates a different kind of community—one that is not limited geographically.

In some ways, the internet makes possible a relationship between text and reader (or in the case of liturgy, text and participant) that is rather more like the relationship of text and reader in the age of manuscripts—when a copyist could include his own notes in the margin, or change the text entirely, and a later copyist might not know that those changes had occurred, and make changes of her own.

We make such liturgical changes already. We introduce inclusive language in responses or use forms from Enriching Our Worship that are less troublesome theologically. But what might it look like to invite creative engagement with liturgical forms in an age of smartphones and interconnectivity?

Envisioning liturgical reform in a digital age seems to me to invite innovation and engagement. It encourages us to rethink our relationship to liturgical texts, and to rethink the human relationships that are created and nurtured in worshiping communities.

My fear is that “prayer book revision” will focus entirely on getting the text right and not reimagining the ways communities and human beings are created and sustained through the liturgies enacted by the texts.

The Book of Common Prayer

The Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer is observed on “a weekday after Pentecost.” In our calendar this year, that means it is observed today (Monday was the Venerable Bede, yesterday, Augustine of Canterbury. The collect for this day reads:

Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

 

I said this while reflecting on Jaobs’ book a couple of years ago:

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

I’m struck by the last couple of sentences considering the rumblings going through the church right now about Prayer Book revision as well as the various resolutions the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music have submitted to General Convention (You can read incisive commentary on those revisions from Scott Gunn here). It seems to me that before undertaking such changes, whether tinkering around the edges or full-scale revision, we need to think carefully and creatively about the role of the Book of Common Prayer in our common life in the twenty-first century.

On the one hand, there’s a tendency to fetishize the BCP (whether the 1662, the 1928, or I suppose, even the 1979), to regard a particular version as normative for all time. On the other hand, there’s another tendency to want to revise it regularly. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that as the institutional church collapses, the things that bind it together may lose their power as well. That is true of the Book of Common Prayer. Can its language, disciplines, and rituals continue to shape people when they no longer experience it as a “book?” And what might its demise mean for Anglicanism as a living tradition within Christianity?

 

The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

I’m not going to offer a full review of Alan Jacobs’ fine little book on the BCP. It’s well-written, engaging, and informative. He directed my attention to people and research of which I was unaware, or barely aware. Most importantly, he doesn’t get bogged down in detail which to me is the great bane of every liturgical scholar. It’s a book I’ll recommend to a certain kind of inquirer, someone interested in liturgy, history, and spirituality, and curious about how we got where we are.

Instead, I’d like to point to several points Jacobs makes that I find especially interesting. For one thing, he stresses the importance of scripture to the Book of Common Prayer:

Indeed, one could argue that Cranmer’s chief reason for implementing standard liturgies was to provide a venue in which the Bible could be more widely and more thoroughly known (p. 27)

The important role of scripture in Anglican liturgy should be obvious to anyone who has attended a service conducted according to the BCP rubrics. Whether hearing so much scripture actually contributes to wider and more thorough knowledge of the Bible is another question, especially when the primary opportunity to explain what people have heard, the sermon, is often an exercise in avoidance of scripture.

In his “biography,” Jacobs reminds us of the early battles over the prayer book, its relative insignificance for much of England’s population during the 18th century (and before). It may have been popular among the elite, and Jacob cites Jane Austen in support of that notion, but given what we know about literacy and church attendance in the 18th century, it couldn’t have been widely familiar to everyone. It reached the height of its influence in the nineteenth century, the Victorian Age, even as cultural change was promising to bring that influence to an end. But what was its influence in that age? At the end of his discussion of Anglo-Catholicism, Jacobs writes:

[the Ritualists]… transformed Cranmer’s words into a kind of ambient music, often heard without acknowledgment, received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding (p. 147)

Jacobs concludes with an idea he takes from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. In that books can be adapted to very different cultural contexts and to readers unimagined by the authors, books, Jacobs says, can learn too. He continues:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

“Full and Empty:”James Wood on the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

The 1662 edition, that is. But Wood’s focus is on the genius of Cranmer. He also discusses the lingering influence of the BCP on English writers, including Austen and Woolf:

For Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both Woolf and Beckett approach Cranmer’s words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

Other reflections on the anniversary and the significance of the BCP for culture, language, literature include James Fallows in The Atlantic and Daniel Swift on Huffington Post.

Revisionist History: The Anglican world marks 350 years of the Book of Common Prayer

Who wrote that headline? Sure, it’s the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but there were several others before it: 1549, 1552, 1559; and The Episcopal Church’s BCP is more dependent on that of the Scottish Episcopal Church than the 1662; which is why those documents that claim the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is shared by all Anglicans is just wrong.

The “genius” of the Book of Common Prayer is not in the 1662 edition, but in the work of Thomas Cranmer who was largely responsible for the 1549 and 1552 versions and in the 1559 book that tried to balance the more Protestant and Catholic tendencies of the two earlier ones.