One of the great achievements of the liturgical revisions of the last century for Anglicans lies in making the Eucharist the central act of worship for the church. Yet one of the attendant misfortunes, which seems to have happened almost by accident, and which scholar and blogger Derek Olsen has repeatedly lamented and sought to change, is how the Daily Office slowly yet systematically began to be neglected in the public worship of parishes.
There was a time, as readers of this blog surely know, when it was in fact the Office which was the central liturgical act for Anglicans. And while I am glad that the Eucharist has taken its proper place, I would like to suggest there is still some heavy duty lifting the Office can do in the current missional situation in which we find ourselves.
There are at least four ways, I believe, that the Office can function as a tool for mission that addresses some pressing contemporary issues facing TEC:
1) In the post-Christian situation it can serve to renew the catechumenate and foster discipleship;
2) Which aids in thinking through the pressure for Communion Regardless of Faith and Baptism;
3) Yet which is sympathetic (in a way) toward those who clearly crave “spirituality” but who have an abiding distrust of “organized religion.”
4) Much of the main work in this scheme can be done by lay people and deacons. Given our financial situation, this is something at least to consider.
I will address each of these in their own post.
While it is true that in America religion is still a focus of public attention in a way that it’s not in other Western countries, yet, at least in my own experience, it’s rather common to meet people who have never darkened the doors of a Church, or at least who haven’t since they were kids; and even those who perhaps had been involved in a youth group or who have had some other connection to the Church do not necessarily know even basic Bible stories or central Christian teachings (being fed on the fluff of motivational moralistic therapeutic deism). On a purely pragmatic level, given the rapid shrinking of our own church, the option is either to engage in mission and evangelism or fade further. That notwithstanding, it’s the world we’re called into to make disciples.
Traditionally, church plants are oriented toward Sunday morning worship, but this has an inbuilt problematic: If the Eucharist is the central act of worship for the baptized faithful, then we’re asking people new to the Church to come and witness only and not participate in worship. Moreover they lack the education necessary to “make sense” of what’s going on.
In no small part through the sizable influence of Stanley Hauerwas, we’re all being reminded that discipleship is notably absent in most of our churches. We’re running on the steam of a cultural Christianity that no longer exists and that was mostly ineffective anyway. This is both to be lamented and celebrated because while it’s unfortunate that we’re failing to form Christians in holiness, we’ve got a new opportunity with people who don’t already “know” what the Church is about, for whom the message and practices are new.
And this is where the Office comes in. In the Office, people can come to know many of the basics of the faith and even participate in its performance without needing to come under the discipline of the Church and be baptized. It’s, to use the phrase, “inclusive,” but it’s still in keeping with the baptismal ecclesiology of the Prayer Book. On Sundays, the core group of the plant would meet to celebrate the Eucharist if they had a priest or receive the reserve elements from a deacon, it being understood that catechesis and baptism is necessary to participate.
What I’m suggesting is that church plants and parishes ought to consider the Office, maybe a sung Evensong or Compline, as a fitting way to expose fresh faces to Christ. From there, emphasize the necessity of catechesis and baptism as a way to come to know Christ and the fellowship of the Church most fully. It might mean, as it used to in the early Church, that people “sit at the edges” of the Church for years — I’m not saying this is a church-growth strategy! — but it also means that we would be making disciples. And what’s not to like about that?