By Derek Olsen
Editor’s note: This piece appears in the Mar. 26 issue of The Living Church, as part of the Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. 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 future. Click here to find and then bookmark the series.
I do not know why my cats seem attracted by prayer, but they are. Perhaps it’s because my lap will remain in a fixed position for 20 minutes. Maybe it’s because they like my fuzzy robe. Maybe there really is an air, an attitude, a spirit of peace and serenity that gathers around those who pray: that feeling you have when you step inside an ancient sanctuary and instantly recognize an odor of holiness, a space sanctified by decades of prayer, the hopes and dreams and anguished breaths clinging to its walls like lingering incense smoke.
I do not know.
But what I do know is that, settling onto the couch for Morning Prayer, coffee cup in one hand, tablet in the other, I inevitably find one or both fuzzy lumps snuggled next to me, purring in my ear from the couch’s back, or plopped in my lap.
As a layman in the Episcopal Church, this is my primary point of contact with the Book of Common Prayer and the spirituality that flows from it. Liturgical scholars, who are almost inevitably priests, focus on the sacraments, argue about Baptism and Eucharist, and mess with and shake up the words of Sunday services in the belief that tweaks here or there (or full-on overhauls) will save the church.
Clamor about revising the prayer book inevitably starts here: fix Sunday morning, fix the Church.
I do not see it that way. Yes, I think our church has some problems. Declining attendance, dwindling endowments, diffusion of purpose; these are all things that we should be concerned about. And a big part of the solution to our problems may well be tied up in the prayer book, but I do not think it’s so much a matter of “fixing” as of “finding.”
I think we need to find our prayer books and then use them — a lot.
The focus of my research and writing as a biblical scholar is ascetical theology. I am not as interested in what we say we think, that is, in what Christians could or should think. I am more interested in what we do. If we as Episcopalians say that the Scriptures, the creeds, and the Book of Common Prayer are important to us, what are the daily practices that make this happen? What are the habits with which the Church clothes itself in the mind of Christ?
The 1979 prayer book, like all its predecessors, is intentionally structured with an implicit rule of life. When Archbishop Cranmer and friends compiled and translated the Book of Common Prayer, they were adapting a coherent system of Christian practices that stretched back as far as the second century. The three central components in this system are the Calendar, the pattern of daily prayers regularized as the Daily Office, and the Eucharist. These three elements form the bedrock of our liturgical spirituality as they seek to draw us into the habitual recollection of God.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is too often understood as the source for Sunday morning services. It is so much more than that. It has so much more to offer the Church than that. Through the mechanisms of the Calendar, the Office, and the Eucharist, it offers a way for transforming the way that Episcopalians pray, think, and act in the world, grounding us in scriptural, creedal patterns of engaging our day-to-day being and the people around us. But this will not happen if the books simply occupy pew racks and wait for us to come to them a few times a month.
I do not think we need prayer book revision in the church at this time. I think we need prayer book recovery. I think we need to live the patterns that are there, make them well and widely known, and then get a sense of where we are. In the last few years, I have begun seeing hopeful signs. There has been a resurgence among the laity in praying the Office. To my mind, that’s the most critical part of the process: when “non-professional Christians” make Scripture and prayer a regular part of our experience. And yet we are not nearly where we need to be.
So much of the promise of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has not been grasped. The Offices were simplified, yes. But they have not been taught or encouraged as regularly as they should. Among other items, two important things, new to American prayer books, appeared: a sanctoral Calendar and a Baptismal Covenant. But the intimate relationship between the two has not been broadly understood. The travails of the Calendar going from Lesser Feasts & Fasts to Holy Women, Holy Men to A Great Cloud of Witnesses and back to Lesser Feasts & Fasts (which remains the official sanctoral Calendar of the Episcopal Church) make abundantly clear that the church is still at sea on this issue. The majority of the church still fails to grasp Christian sanctity as the expression of a life-long sacramental path of discipleship grounded in baptism.
Are there some changes I would make to our current Book of Common Prayer if I had the authority to do so? Yes, perhaps. Is the church in peril if the book is not changed? No, it is not. But the church is in peril when we are not praying. At its heart, the purpose of a liturgical system, a liturgical structure, like that of the prayer book is not to shape it to our way of thinking, but to allow it to shape us into its patterns, its rhythms, its witness to the gospel embodied in sacramental actions and daily events.
The theological and scriptural center of the prayer book’s Daily Office is the repetition of the Psalms and key canticles. The poetic praise of the Psalms gives us an emotional grammar for talking to God: words and forms for offering praise and rejoicing, but also words of confusion, of pain, of anger. No other liturgical resource offers us such profound models for the praise of God, the giver of all good gifts, but also for railing at God and pouring out our doubts and frustrations as the Psalms.
For me and for millions of Christians through time who have prayed the Daily Office, our vision of Christian social action is renewed every evening when we pray the Song of Mary (“He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent away empty”). Our understanding of Christian mission and evangelism is reinforced by every morning’s Song of Zechariah (“To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace”).
When my cats and I settle onto the couch each morning, we may be the only three in the room but nonetheless we are joining the whole Church in prayer. When we share a common pattern of praise, when we open ourselves to be formed and conformed to the ancient words and ways of Scripture, we join the great unceasing chorus that rises hour by hour before the throne of God and the Lamb. I know that my wife will join it when she prays the Office at the parish where she is rector; my girls will join it as we pray the brief hours together. We plug ourselves into the praises of God that feed, nurture, and form the body of Christ.
These are the daily actions that will renew the Church.
Rather than looking for the next Sunday-morning novelty to save us, I see a renewal of the Church bound up with a recovery and recommitment to the patterns we already possess. If we cannot inhabit what we already have, how will altering it have any meaningful or measurable effect?
My hope for the church is that we, as a people of prayer, a spiritual temple built of living stones, may become suffused with the odor of holiness. Not of sanctimoniousness, not of self-righteousness, but with the spirit of a people who are both honest and earnest in prayer: who daily offer our joys, our doubts, our disappointments, and our delights as we have been shaped and led by the honest psalms and prayers of our prayer book.
I do not think we need to fix our prayer books: I think we need to find them, and then use them — a lot.
A former member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, Dr. Derek Olsen is the author of Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life. He writes regularly at the St. Bede Blog.