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Why Pray from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

On November 10, I addressed the students of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, invited by our fellow worshipper Dr. Roberta Bayer who teaches Philosophy and Ethics there and introduced by our newly-confirmed member Dee Deming, a Patrick Henry graduate now Assistant Dean of Women. Knowing that many of these students were unfamiliar with liturgical worship, I spoke on that. When I gave a brief version of my talk last Sunday some of our members asked for a copy because they “had always wondered why we used a Prayer Book, but didn’t want to ask.” So, herewith:

My topic is deliberately sub-jective: What I like about liturgical worship, defined as worship following a set form and shape and order and words, often mocked as “praying from a book.” I worship God this way every Sunday, every day and every night, and I find it very effective. Here are some reasons why.

Let me begin with a true local story to which I’m indebted. I like liturgical worship because it uses a book – in fact a book created the parish I now serve. Located where it is, during the War between the States Loudoun County was constantly changing hands from army to army: by the second year of the War most of the horses had been “requisitioned” by one side or the other, the good people around Oatlands had a hard time traveling eight or more miles to the nearest churches in Leesburg, Middleburg, or Bull Run – so Kate Carter, newly-wed 22-year-old mistress of Oatlands Plantation, expanded her regular morning and evening family prayers to include Sunday morning services for the entire community, whatever denomination, y’all come, in the plantation’s oak grove in good weather, in the blacksmith’s barn in bad. No one there had been trained to compose or create worship services, but that was no problem… because Mrs. Carter had a book any layman or woman can use to lead worship, the 1787 Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

Now, I recognize and honor the tradition that “you don’t need to pray out of a book,” but doing so does have its definite uses – as Mrs. Carter and the faithful demonstrated. Think: using the same prayers week after week, the people could learn them by heart and therefore join in even if they didn’t have a copy or couldn’t read, say and pray them together because they were always the same, take part in truly public worship, communal shared ‘common’ worship, precisely because they were all led by the one book, were literally all on the same page.

So I like liturgical worship because it’s participatory. “Liturgy” is from a Greek word meaning “public work,” things done by or for the general populace as opposed to private activities. “Liturgical” worship, then, involves the people in the pews as much as possible, not just as auditors or spectators to the minister doing histhing, but as full participants – which in practice requires a book with which you can not only follow the service, you can take it home with you, use it every day and every night, keep by your bedside, carry it with you to use anytime anywhere, pray with it over and over, until the prayers become part of you, ‘hear, read, learn, and inwardly digest.’ Aren’t you glad you know the Lord’s Prayer? Learn fifty others!

I like liturgical worship because it’s order-ly. Anglicans differentiate between the order of worship, set by the book, and style of worship, which varies widely: our parish is one of nine under attack by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the national Episcopal Church because nearly four years ago we voted to leave them because of their un-Scriptural practices and teachings. {We’re a pretty straight biblical congregation: our vote to leave was 131-4.} Our worship ‘style’ is very traditional, organ music -- most of the other nine parishes being sued are charismatic with drums and electric guitars – but we work together because we’re united by the Good Book and the Prayer Book. Patrick Henry’s own President Dr. Walker is an Anglican in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Leesburg – they use guitars, we use an organ, but we are one in the Lord using the one same liturgy.

I like liturgical worship because it’s rooted and shaped by 2,000 years of history, and the Bible makes clear that God works through, is active in, human history: the Exodus, for an instance, and the Incarnation. The liturgy for the Holy Communion was pretty much set within a century after Jesus’ Resurrection, so we try to follow this model: I can walk into any Greek, Roman, Russian, Lutheran Holy Communion and quickly know where we are in the order of service whether I know the language or not. This universal worship speaks to me.

I like Anglican liturgical worship because the words are grand and great. (‘Anglican’ means having services in English, just as Russian or Greek Orthodox have them in Russian or Greek, Roman Catholics in Roman/Latin, &c.) Words are important: ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ Our parish uses the traditional Prayer Book language, the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible is good enough for us, we have no problem with “thee” and “thou” – English is the only European language that has lost the intimate second person singular expressing close personal relationship, du in German, tu in French and Spanish, thou in historic English: “you” is second person plural, formal, distant; “thou” specifies how close is our feeling with God our loving Father, Jesus our Saviour, the Holy Spirit our guide… and if “vouchsafe” is unfamiliar, look it up as a chance and a challenge to find out what the word means and learn something, for it has a theological teaching.

I like liturgical worship because I value its roots. Many Anglican prayers were adapted from prayers that were already 1,000 years old when they were used in 1549 in the very first Prayer Book ever written in English. They have the good feel of stones in a creek-bed for centuries, shaped and polished by 60 generations of steady prayerful use, many of them honed down to one single sentence. (Don’t you wish all pastors could do that?) Listen to the gem-like shape and balance of the Anglican Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, this year ovember 28th:

    Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him that liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

I couldn’t make up anything that good in a month of trying, much less something new for every Sunday – I am humble, I rejoice, to learn from the generations past… and, my following the book protects the congregation from the personal peculiarities of the preacher: if I go off text, half a dozen people will call me on it going out.

I like liturgical worship because it’s shaped by The Sacramental Principle, which is that God uses things, physical material matter and human perceptions of it, to teach and communicate with us. This is rooted in the Incarnation, that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us:” Jesus was not an intellectual theory, not some Gnostic spook ‘pretending’ to be human, He was fully God and fully man. The Anglican Catechism articulates the Sacramental principle this way:

    A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, instituted by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

There have always been iconoclasts who thought that by destroying all physical aids to worship they were being more spiritual – in 1522 when zealous reformers began destroying statues and paintings and Altar decorations and stained glass windows in Wittenburg, that good conservative Luther risked his life to come out of safe hiding to preach four blistering sermons telling them to stop the destruction! As Anglican C. S. Lewis comments, “God doesn’t disdain matter – after all, He invented it.”

I like liturgical worship because it uses physical materials and all five of our senses – since God gave all of these to us, we appropriately use all his gifts to worship Him, even if it’s controversial. I know that when I was a boy in Leesburg, if any Methodist or Presbyterian or Baptist minister had worn a colored stole or put colored cloths on the altar, he’d’ve been run out of town the next day -- but times do change…

I like liturgical worship because it uses visual aids to education, and I need all the help I can get, all God or His Church can give. God invented time, works with us in and through time, so we try to sanctify time by using the Christian Year recapitulating our Lord’s ministry and our response: the liturgical year beings four Sundays before Christmas with the Advent season, preparing our souls for Jesus’ first advent-coming in Bethlehem’s stable and His second advent to judge the world at the end of time as we know it – then Christmastide, then Epiphany to the Wise Men, then Lent preparing for Holy Week and the Resurrection, then Eastertide, the Ascension, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and then the long slog of our busy patient waiting and work until we start Advent again. Yes, ‘round and ‘round – but that’s the way God made our earthly year and since it’s time sanctified by Christ, we use differently-colored Altar cloths to reflect the different tones of God’s seasons: penitent but royal purple for Advent and Lent, white for festive Christmas and Easter, red for the tongues of fire at Pentecost, new-growth green for our long but fruitful haul since then, occasional black when we mourn the faithful departed.

I like this liturgical worship because I find it informative, a constant teaching. Oliver Cromwell regretted that public worship wasn’t conducted in a dark windowless room, so that one could think only on the Word, but liturgical worship asks Paul’s question from First Corinthians 12:17, “If the whole body were an ear, where would be the seeing?”

With teaching in mind I like liturgical worship because it is Biblically disciplined, it calls for constant and comprehensive study of the whole Bible by allmembers: having assigned Scripture lessons compels preachers to deal with the challenging passages rather than just choose for themselves only ones with which they are comfortable – listing them for all to see in the Prayer Book enables members to notice when a pastor is dodging a difficult lesson. Readings for every Sunday and many special occasions are printed in full in the 1928 Book, 159 pages of passages where the worshipper in the pew can read them, along with 180 pages of all 150 Psalms and a 37-page preface listing psalms and four readings for personal Bible study on every day of the year. You can’t get much more Biblical than that, and you can have your own copy at home to use every day. The Book of Common Prayer has rightfully been called

    The Bible arranged for devotional use.

Finally, I like liturgical worship, dare I say it, because it’s good exercise? I can live with humorous references to “Anglican aerobics” because I know that 90% of the Christians in the world enjoy the same exercise regimen in shared worship, standing for praise, sitting for instruction, kneeling for prayer, meaningful physical participation in worship: doesn’t First Corinthians 6:20 instruct us to “glorify God with your body?” And in every Morning Prayer service Anglicans sing Psalm 95 including the imperative verse 6, “O come, let us worship and bow down, and kneel before the Lord our maker” – how can a Bible-believer dodge that?

Enough. In short, subjectively, I like liturgical worship because it works for me – objectively, pragmatically, I honor and respect liturgical worship because it has a great track record, it has worked for billions of Christian souls for some 2,000 years and will eventually be consummated in the orderly worship of all the saints in Heaven as foreseen in chapters four and seven of the Book of the Revelation to Saint John. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

So be it. Amen.