Irecently completed my second summer of coursework for the Doctor of Ministry degree at the University of the South’s School of Theology. During a meeting of my Contemporary Liturgical Theology seminar, my classmates and I had a video chat with one of the scholars we were studying. One question was raised regarding modern understandings of liturgical language and meaning. The noted liturgical scholar, an ELCA pastor, began his response by recalling a story about once being asked by an Episcopal parish to celebrate a Rite I Eucharist. “I do not believe Rite I proclaims the gospel,” he said. It was this liturgist’s opinion that Rite I’s language represented an outdated theology, and because of that, in good conscience, he could not celebrate a Rite I Eucharist.
I believe the theology he critiqued is connected to the decision to omit the Prayer of Humble Access from Rite II. Liturgists saw this staple prayer of Anglican worship as depicting sinners as first shriven and then proclaimed worthy to stand before God, which contradicted the new contemporary rite’s interpretation of redemption. Mid-century liturgists understood the pervasive language of unworthiness as reflecting a Reformation-flavored religion of days long gone. The 1979 Prayer Book reflected a significantly reduced penitential tone, a departure from the Episcopal Church’s earlier prayer books. Rite II’s eucharistic prayers depicted God’s relationship with the faithful more as a cooperative partnership than an authoritative hegemony.
I know many Episcopalians who feel that Rite I’s language creates a roller coaster of emotions, repeatedly talking about grace but also about how sinful we are. For them, Rite I conveys the notion of humanity being so wretched that it could never be in God’s good graces. As social psychologist Clifford Nash has said, “The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres.”
All of this highlights the human tendency to avoid recognizing the reality of sin. There seems to be a growing offense in today’s world about mentioning sin, for it is negative and harmful. Yes, that is exactly what sin is. It is negative in that sin “is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” and harms us in that “we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.” Yet if we confess our sin, it does not permanently harm us.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Confession helps us see our need for a Redeemer “to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” We become pointed toward the Good News of Jesus Christ.
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1b-2)
A serious reading of the Rite I liturgy reveals God’s people “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord … being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Consider, for instance, these words:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Here is the acknowledgment of “our manifold sins” and our need for a Redeemer. In the presentation of “our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God, we experience the transcendence spoken of by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is in this transcendent experience that we are brought to the Good News, realizing, as John Wesley once wrote, the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, our hearts “strangely warmed.” It strengthens our trust in Christ alone for salvation, assuring us that he has taken away our sins and saved us from the law of sin and death.
To say that Rite I does not convey the gospel discredits the gospel’s full redemptive power. It suggests that Rite I cannot provide the transformative experience of the Eucharist. It denies Rite I as a liturgical instrument for the work of God in our time. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8.28).
In his book Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving, liturgical scholar David Power speaks of a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” It can be said that those averse to Rite I are concerned with its perceived communication about who God is and how the Gospel’s message is conveyed. Their aversion is more than likely based on opinions of Rite I’s language conveying God as aloof, frightening, and impersonal, so that one is incapable and unworthy of coming to really know God. How, then, can one see Rite I’s language as graceful?
Power says there must be “a fuller exploration of the relation between life and language,” and adds:
The poetic must integrate the tragic and the comic of life, within a vision of the future. The centrality of metaphor to the poetic indicates how this is done. The place of metaphor in the play of language is to open up new possibilities of meaning and of being, in our being in the world and in our being in time toward death, to be linked to the coming and the tragic.
That is the transcendence Rite I may provide for the worshiper. If one is fully open to the experience, within the old language is a power that can lift and encourage the weary soul. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28). In the difference, beauty, and “highness” of Rite I’s language is God, “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Rite I becomes a means of God’s grace by lifting worshipers to him.
The language of Rite I puts before me a vision of God as my Almighty Father who loves me and invites me into his presence:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:6, 8-9)
Grace — that is what Rite I communicates. Its Comfortable Words confirm it. “Ye who do truly earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith.” The very invitation to draw near to God is Good News. “Almighty God … hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and truth faith turn unto him.” “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Prov. 30.5).
Rite I does proclaim the Gospel. If it is outdated theology, then call me old fashioned.
 Lesley A. Northup. “The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.,” The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 365-66.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 848-49.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 849.
 Ibid., p. 336.
 John Wesley, “Wednesday, 24 May 1738,” The Works of John Wesley (Third Edition: Complete and Unabridged—Volumes 1 and 2) (Baker Books, 1998), p. 103.
 Alexander Schmemann. Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), p. 49.
 David N. Power, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999), p. 61.
 Ibid., pp. 72-73.
 The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 330, 332.