By Robert Hendrickson
Editor’s note: This is the fifth piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appeared in the Dec. 11 issue. Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 prayer book?” is the well-known first piece in the series. Further essays in Necessary or Expedient? will appear here in the coming weeks and months. Click here to find and then bookmark the series.
On the morning after Election Day, 11 people gathered in our chapel at St. Philip’s in the Hills in Tucson. We were a small body of the faithful (though somewhat more than gathers on other mornings) who came together to pray words that would have been familiar to those who prayed after the World Trade Center’s towers fell. They would have been familiar to those who prayed as a space shuttle came apart in a clear sky, when a president and civil-rights leaders were assassinated, as Iowa boys landed on a French beach. They would have been familiar to those who have prayed through countless disasters, calamities, and mornings after.
We prayed Morning Prayer, Rite I, which begins on page 37 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
On countless mornings after, throughout our nation’s history and long before, we have prayed. We have prayed for justice and mercy, for peace and prosperity, for loving-kindness and forgiveness. We have prayed that the Lord would show mercy upon us and guide us in the way of justice and peace.
Some in the chapel, no doubt, prayed with sadness. Others may have offered prayers of thanksgiving. Yet, gathered in that small room were not just the 11 of us. Gathered there, in our prayers, were the countless men and women who had prayed in that room before, who had prayed and still do today with the prayers we have been given as a gift and inheritance. You could hear echoes in the officiant’s voice, which hesitated just a little, when she said, “Lord, keep this nation under thy care.”
Since my arrival as rector not long ago, we have talked much about the Book of Common Prayer. We have talked about its theological premises and about its role as a foundational source for our particular branch of the Church. We have talked about its meaning, rich poetry, and historical significance. We have returned to it as the primary source for our liturgical life.
The Book of Common Prayer exists, in no small part, to be a tool for our transformation. In its pages is the promise that we who pray regularly will be changed wholly. This is not by chance but by the disciplined engagement of the community with the Holy Spirit who has inspired its crafting. This is not mystical but utterly and completely practical. It is a source of unity that is effected when we speak its words and honor its promises. It binds us to one another and gives direction to our shared search for Christ’s enduring and abiding mercy.
With the advent of Enriching our Worship and other options for worship, individual communities often seek to use their liturgical time together to speak truth to power in some way and to remind themselves of their Christian obligations to strive for the dignity of every person. The problem is the increasing disconnect between what worship is and what its purpose is.
Ultimately, worship is an expression of our desire to be united with Christ as a community of faithful, failing people. In baptism and the Eucharist, we are given the most fleeting of glimpses of the deepest permanent reality: we are at one with Christ. All we can do in worship is give thanks, lay ourselves at the foot of the throne of grace, and offer all that we are, just as we have on so many mornings after for centuries past and will for centuries to come.
Worship is not meant to be a didactic exercise by which we talk about justice. It is designed to clothe us in the fullness of Christ, and by doing so empower us to proclaim justice at every turn of our lives and beyond. The echoed prayers of that morning after Election Day held the promise that generations had prayed those prayers and that we who gathered were manifesting hope, praying a unity into existence and sharing a unity given in crèche and Cross.
That encounter with Christ takes place within the gathered body. It takes place within the shared hopes, memories, and aspirations of a people who find him together in Word and Sacrament. It takes place within and beyond history. It takes place before and after death. It is always being offered. It takes the whole body of the Church to begin to express our thanks for the gift offered in Christ. It takes the whole body of the Church with one voice offering thanks and receiving new hope. It trains us to see all of Creation through the light of God’s ideal.
The prayer book leads us to a more just Church. Justice is not each of our individual conceptions of right and wrong being traded about until someone makes better choices. Justice is not being made to feel bad so that we take part in wan acts of charity. Justice is the whole turning of ourselves, our communities, and our Church to the will and mind of Christ. It is finding such unity with Christ and one another that we can do nothing but act justly.
This will not happen in antiseptic, didactic chats about God or through the creativity of especially enlightened communities. Our shared language in the prayer book is the expression of our communities’ many different hopes across the centuries. It gives voice to the shared knowledge that we are being brought together to our perfection in Christ, generation after generation. Nothing could be more relevant.
Relevant is a word that gets used when people want to say the Church is no longer a present fact or factor in people’s lives, either because of outdated liturgy, doctrine, language, or manifold other reasons. For many, the Church is not relevant because of something it does that makes it no longer a valued voice in the cultural or consumer marketplace.
For many, it is true, the Church is no longer the dominant voice in their lives and no longer drives their weekly life in the way it once did. We know that wide swaths of the Christian landscape are changing under our feet and that younger people are moving away from organized religion. Yet, I would argue, it is not the Church that has become irrelevant but the ways in which the Church is led.
The Church is irrelevant not because we look too different from the culture but because we look too much like the culture. We are too often not actually offering anything particularly countercultural in many of our parishes, so what real reason do folks have to stay other than habit? Why come to a church that offers more of what they get in their day-to-day lives: more endless consumerist individualism masking itself as creativity? In teaching, liturgy, service, or preaching, the challenge is not making the Church easier to understand or making it relevant but living in such a way that the countercultural narrative we offer is one that Christ would recognize as his own message. Is there a way for the Church not to be relevant but to matter in a living, breathing way? The key to relevance is not to be one more option amidst a panoply of distractions but to be the foundation and summit of people’s lives and hopes. This is the change the prayer book promises us and is the foundation of a truly justice-minded Church.
Justice is not revealed by us to the Church. It is revealed by the body to us. We are becoming self-offering so that we can be likewise to the world. This is not the work of an instant but is the result of a lifetime of worship that so changes us that we are a true community, not for the sake of getting along but for the sake of Christ. This necessarily demands a discipline on our part and a willingness to not hear every pronouncement we want to hear from the pulpit or in our prayers.
The prayer book may be our deepest hope for a more just Church because as we use it we are united with brothers and sisters who are being formed with the same promises. The very act of submission to common prayer is to put us in mind of common purpose, the sacrifice of our need to be right for the greater need to be in relationship. The cost of proclaiming presumed enlightenment — our walking away from common prayer — is often to be self-separated from the community that needs us and us them now as we ever have.
In a time of increased theological confusion, and even deeper confusion about just who Christ is, theological or creedal waffling will hardly suffice, and will in fact do profound harm. When communities take up the task of changing the Church’s worship, they are contributing to injustice because they are weakening the claim of the whole body to offer one voice. Moreover, they are declaring the inability of the whole body’s common life and prayer to be a means of grace and to offer the hope of glory.
There might be better prayers to pray, more we can be doing in liturgy, more modern language we could use. There might be many good and reasonable alterations that could be made to the prayer book to make it better. Yet it is not ours to change alone. It is the collected longing and debated theological reckoning of this church. It is the expression of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our history that speaks to and through us to this day.
Common prayer is designed to change us. The purpose of worship is the adoration of God, and a lifetime of shared adoration will change the Church. The prayer book can change the world because it can change us, and it may just begin not with some creative, new thing but with page 37 of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Rev. Robert Hendrickson is rector of Saint Philip’s in the Hills Church in Tucson, Arizona.