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An appeal for Cranmer’s prayers

In my last post for Covenant, I spoke about how, since coming to my current parish, I introduced the traditional Prayers of the People from Rite I of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and I gave a theological reflection on the meaning of that prayer. I mentioned how the parish had moved gradually from the conventional dual use of Rite I and Rite II to an exclusive use of Rite I. The bridge between these was the Anglican Service Book, which takes the Rite II services and puts them into traditional language. One reader of that post asked if I would write further about how the parish made this transition.

I think the most difficult part of such a transition is getting used to the language of Rite I. Having not been here when the parish transitioned from Rite II to the liturgy in the Anglican Service Book, I cannot comment in depth on what that looked like, but I can say that, being born after the introduction of the 1979 prayer book, I grew up with an almost exclusive experience of liturgy in Rite II language. When I was first exposed to Rite I as a young adult, it was not love at first sight. Gradually, though, the language became more natural, and when I finally ceased to be self-conscious about the language, it simultaneously ceased to be archaic.

I believe the most important part of traditional liturgy is not the language but the words themselves, and for this reason I find the liturgy of the Anglican Service Book to be ultimately unsatisfying. Rather, I feel strongly that the words of Thomas Cranmer should be used whenever possible. I was speaking to a parishioner recently about some of these liturgical changes in our parish, and reflected that we are returning to the well — she gave an assured nod of understanding and agreement. In times of crisis, we are called to go ad fontes. For every parish, a return to the well would look different: for some it might mean the use of Rite I for Lent and Advent; for others it might mean a revival of the traditional daily services of Morning & Evening Prayer; for a bold few it might mean a return to a more thorough Cranmerian liturgy like that found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. All of this requires tremendous pastoral sensitivity, as congregations and individuals are reintroduced or (increasingly more likely) introduced for the first time to Cranmer’s liturgy. I believe it is also necessary to have a sense of principle about why the Reformed and Catholic dimensions of Cranmer’s liturgy are important.

In the following paragraphs, I offer in an edited form a series of “notes” published in the Sunday bulletin leading up to the implementation of the Rite I liturgy. In them, I present some of the principles that I think are important in using regularly Cranmer’s liturgy.

* * *

One of the most common criticisms of Cranmer’s prayers is that they are overly penitential, but I believe that the emphasis on human sin is a more empirically honest evaluation of humanity apart from God. The prayer book says quite frankly that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” It also does not white-wash human sin. Take these sobering words from the General Confession:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

This honest evaluation of human nature and our condition is something everyone needs to hear and be reminded of. As humans, we are stuck in the mire of sin, and we need to hear that “simply trying a little harder” will not work: we need a Savior to lift us up. In relation to sin, the prayer book’s clarity on the human condition is the equivalent of the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

But just as the Bible does not leave us solely with this grim evaluation of human nature, so too Cranmer’s prayers do not leave worshipers without hope: a Savior has come to rescue us in our need and brokenness. The prayers frequently dwell on God’s great love for humans as shown principally and definitively in Jesus Christ. Among my favorite words of the Communion service are the following:

[Christ] made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.

When the revisers of the current prayer book took to editing this prayer for Rite II, they removed the apparent redundancies. They missed the point, however, that as humans in need of real help and hope, we need to hear over and over again the assurance that we have been saved. It is finished. Our security and salvation lie not in ourselves but in the one who has offered himself selflessly and completely.

In addition to the sober but honest language of Rite I, I believe that by using it consistently we will practicing a neglected virtue of Anglican worship: predictability. These prayers are so rich that every Sunday we need to be reminded of the truths they contain. Every time we come into church, we know we will be saying, for example, the same confession, and this is important because over time, the prayer becomes part of our memory and then part of our identity.

Years ago, I had an older friend who suffered from bipolar disorder. Having been raised in the church, she told me that it was the words from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (that she heard week in and week out) that would come to her when she was in her greatest mental darkness. In addition, we want our children to know these prayers and to allow the prayers to shape them as they become adults. Imagine what a spiritual gift we are giving them, by saying the Comfortable Words every week at every service of Holy Communion. What greater summary of our Gospel faith can be found but in those words? Predictability means that, whatever is going on in the world or in our lives, these classic prayers will stay the same.

A further reason to use these traditional prayers is because it is supposed to be a feast when we gather for Holy Communion. We offer our financial resources, we offer bread and wine, and we also offer ourselves and all our lives. When we gather for our prayers, there should be nothing that we do not offer to God, whether it is a heartache, an anxiety, a sadness, or a cause of joy. We give all to God. Such a feast should be not only a feast of bread and wine and a feast of God’s truth, but it should also be a feast of words and ideas. What is Holy Communion? Is it not the grace of God made visible, and fellowship with our Lord Jesus? What form of words befit such a sacrament? Should it not be the most beautiful, most exalted words that can be found? Should it not be a feast of words?

One could tell the story of the Annunciation in simple words:

An angel came to a girl named Mary and said she would deliver God’s Son. Mary said that was okay with her, if that was what God wanted.

Now compare that to the feast of words found in the Authorized King James Version:

And the angel said unto her, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

Even if this second version is somewhat more difficult to understand, I think most would agree it is worth the effort to inform and educate because the words are fitting to the importance and gravity of the story. In the same way, when we gather together to share in the Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, we want the china and silver, not the Solo cups and paper plates. (See Matthew Olver’s recent piece “To speak as a Christian” for a similar point.)

A final reason to use these traditional prayers centers on the importance of story-telling. Just about every time I am with my father-in-law for any considerable time, there is a cycle of stories that he tells about my wife and her sister. Often, he tells the stories using almost exactly the same words, and yet he is so good at telling them, that even though we have heard them many times, we cannot help but laugh and be delighted. If you didn’t know him, you might think he is forgetful, but I believe that there is something profound in his repetition of the same stories: namely, communities are built around shared stories. These stories are not just told once, like a book that is read and then put on a shelf, but they are told over and over again, binding the community together with a common heritage and identity.

In the Christian Church, we are called to tell the story of Jesus over and over again. Every time we gather to share in the sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, we are retelling this story of the gospel. This is our heritage and our identity. When it comes to telling the story of the gospel in the Episcopal Church, I believe there is no clearer and no better way to tell it than with the traditional prayer book liturgy found in Rite I. This liturgy presents a vivid drama in a grave and stately style. Every time we hear the words, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee,” we are taken there, to the foot of the cross at Calvary, where the one who died for you and me willingly offered himself.

Finally, I would acknowledge and concede that all change, however little, is difficult. I remember when, as a young college student, I was first exposed to Rite I and soon after to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It was a challenge for me initially. I had been raised with Rite II, but with its sheer variety it did not have the effect that the traditional prayer book had on previous generations, with the text of the liturgy becoming second nature, predictable in the best sense of that word. As I grew accustomed to the language and content of these traditional prayers, I found in them a rich and abiding source of spiritual nourishment that can accompany one throughout life. C.S. Lewis once wrote that adjusting to liturgy can be like learning to drive. When you are first learning, all you are thinking about is the details: where to push and when, how to turn and when. After a while, driving a car becomes one fluid motion, and we stop thinking about the individual movements. If you transition to this “new” service and you find it initially difficult, I would commend patience. Treat it like driving a car, knowing that after a time of use, the form and structure of the liturgy will become less visible and eventually disappear altogether. Then the liturgy will be doing the work it is designed to do in shaping us from week to week, year to year, in our Christian walk.

John Mason Lock’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “137b” (2005) by Chris Dillon. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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