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Between Scylla and Charybdis?

By Juan M. Cabrero Oliver

Though many of us might wish for clear sailing on prayer book revision, we run a very real danger of getting caught, like Odysseus, by a whirlpool on one side and by rocky shoals on the other. We must steer between them.

Some want a new book. The list is long, but includes less Anselmian substitutionary atonement, more expansive language for humans and God, disconnecting baptismal status from the Eucharist, adding language that speaks more directly to the heart, and crafting more permissive rubrics.

Some really do not want a new prayer book at all; some may want to go back to 1928. They are convinced that any new book will discard orthodoxy, that the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 prayer book will give way to a new clericalism, that we will lose any sense of sin and atonement. Besides, they add, most parishes have not lived long enough with the baptismal ecclesiology or the freedom of the current book, so we do not need a new one.

I would suggest that this kind of either/or thinking will get us nowhere. In what follows I try to identify some false dichotomies informing these positions.

Unity vs. diversity: Some people fear that a revised prayer book will erode the “unity of Anglican worship.” But Anglican worship has never been monolithic. From the Scottish Nonconformists using their version of the 1559 prayer book to Anglo-Catholic clergy creating missals, local, textual, and ceremonial adaptation has very often characterized Anglican worship, despite attempts to control it. Perhaps for this reason the rubrics of the 1979 prayer book say almost nothing about architecure, posture, musical genres, vestments, or ceremonial. The only thing in common in our common prayer in the Episcopal Church is a collection of texts.

Furthermore, the International Anglican Consultation determined in 1989 that our liturgical unity is not to be found in a specific text, but in a pattern of worship across the churches of the Communion. “What really unites us, as with all Christians, is our oneness in Christ through baptism and the [E]ucharist,” the IALC added in 2005. “We celebrate our unity in Christ and seek to realize that unity through the diversity of backgrounds and cultures within the compass of the world-wide Anglican Communion.”

Why are we so loathe to imagine an Episcopal Church with a variety of local worship styles? From Constantine to Charlemagne to Gregory VII to Elizabeth I, to some primates in our Communion, people in power have used unity to argue for imposed uniformity, as if we could bring unity about by marching in lockstep. Our unity as Christians, however, is in Christ, who “tore down the dividing wall.” He is one with us and the Father, and we are incoporated into his body in baptism and Eucharist. In imitation of the Holy Trinity, our unity must be unity in diversity, united by love. Having to choose between unity and diversity is a false dichotomy.

Baptismal ecclesiology vs. radical hospitality: The emphasis on hospitality adopted by proponents of Eucharist without baptism must be evaluated. Some clergy are even moved to issue a ritual proclamation within the liturgy that invites the unbaptized to Communion. Something, somehow tells them that they are not being sufficiently hospitalble. On the other hand, there are many who consider the ’79 prayer book’s understanding of the church as the community of the baptized very good news indeed. Although many of these Episcopalians are ready to make pastoral exceptions at the rail, they value a baptismal ecclesiology too much to do away with the historic link between baptism and Eucharist.

Any Christian worship worth the name, however, must be grounded in both God’s call to all who will respond and in our incorporation into Christ. Still, are we hospitable enough? Inviting our guests to “come on in, take what you want” is not hospitality but pastoral neglect. It ignores the church’s responsibility to accompany seekers pastorally as they explore or rediscover the Christian life and freely decide whether they wish to be a member of a parish. This does not mean, of course, that we will require baptismal certificates at the rail. All norms admit exceptions, especially in the name of love.

Revised prayer book or not, we need both a vision of the Church as the community of those dead and risen with Christ in baptism and a stronger emphasis on pastoral hospitality that pays attention to the seeker, assisting any decision to become members. Having to choose between hospitality and baptismal ecclesiology is another false dichotomy.

Elevated vs. vernacular language: Another false dichotomy in the current conversation is the opposition between elevated and vernacular language. It was perfectly possible for Cranmer to write liturgical prayers combining the English vernacular of his time with the Latin rhetoric of the educated class. We call this combination elevated language, and although it may sound exotic to us, it was not to his contemporaries. Why do we assume that such an achievement is impossible with our vernacular and poetics? We need common prayer that in the best Anglican tradition combines the vernacular with beautiful poetry. Having to choose between elevated and vernacular language is another false dichotomy.

Orthodox vs. intelligible language: Besides valuing an elevated vernacular, the Anglican liturgical tradition is equally committed to the doctrinal statements of the undivided Church. Sometimes students and lovers of worship assume that these two concerns — intelligibility and orthodoxy — must be at war with each other. In fact, they are fully complementary. For what good is a doctrinal statement that cannot be understood or, for that matter an easily understood prayer that contradicts the tradition? We want neither, but rather worship that is both orthodox and accessible on such core theological insights as the nature of God, Christ, sin, salvation, the Church, its mission, and sacraments.

Originally meaning “right praise,” Christian orthodoxy in theology refers to a pattern of belief essential to the Christian faith. This pattern, emerging mostly between the second and fourth century, must ever be cast in contemporary language for the sake of comprehension, since language is constantly evolving. There is a false dichotomy in assuming that somehow intelligibility is the opposite of orthodoxy.

Translated prayer: As Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer, I am honored to be trusted with the task of certifying translations. A translator myself, I know from experience that it is impossible to translate literally and faithfully at the same time. Attempts to render one language into another word for word will result in awkward, sometimes unintelligible phrases. In recent decades, therefore, New Testament scholars have led the way to discover the importance of dynamic equivalence in the translation of Scripture, for literal translations often are not only inelegant but also unfaithful to the meaning of the original in its original context.

Liturgical and creedal texts also must follow the same principle of dynamic equivalence in order to be faithful to the original. Otherwise we run the risk of misunderstanding the original meaning of a phrase. Much contemporary New Testament scholarship, from the work of N.T. Wright to John Dominic Crossan and David B. Hart, has corrected mistranslations of the original texts, some of which came into English as early as the seventh century.

In sum, orthodoxy cannot possibly mean the literal translation of the original text. If so, doctrinal statements could never be translated faithfully, and we would all have to worship in Hebrew and Greek. Orthodoxy refers, rather, to the correspondence between the original meaning of a statement in its historical and textual context and the expression of that meaning in a different context that yet remains faithful to the original.

I bring this up because most of the prayer book is translated prayer. And yet some find the prospect of translating liturgical prayer (much of it quite ancient) into anything other than Tudor English undesirable. We should keep a Tudor version of the prayer book for those for whom it is an aid to prayer. After all, diversity of liturgical customs is a deeply Anglican trait. It is also possible, and profoundly Anglican, to write liturgical materials that are fully contemporary, orthodox, and beautiful.

If it is possible, we may well ask, why is it so rare? Certainly not because all poets have been taken in the rapture. I suspect our method for writing liturgical materials is at fault. For a liturgical text to meet the criteria of orthodoxy, contemporaneity, and beauty, its development must combine the work of theologians, ordinary Christians, and poets. The pressures of time, budgets, logistics — and sometimes egos — often drive us to draft in committee, with the final text sounding like a collection of disparate statements lacking unity of style. I would suggest instead that a liturgical production go through three stages each led by different people: liturgical scholars, lay and ordained Episcopalians, and published poets.

The reason for this process should be clear. Practically no one in our Church is capable of doing all three things equally well. We must, therefore, learn to work collaboratively, trusting each other’s expertise. Will it take longer? Yes. Will it please everyone. No. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

The kenosis of the Church: There can be clear sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, as long as we steer right down the via media, avoiding false dichotomies. On the way, let us devote the energy of our anxiety into finding poets, and trying our humble hands at writing prayers (knowing full well that they will be examined, taken apart and probably recast). Most importantly, let us enter into deep, sustained conversations about the nature of worship, the nature and mission of the Church, and the relationship between gospel, Church, and kingdom. Otherwise our discussions about liturgical revision will continue to sound increasingly like discussions about fashion, and there is no arguing about taste.

Above all, since the Church of Christ does not exist to please itself, let us ask: Why do so many of our contemporaries avoid church at all costs? What is their understanding of who we are and what we are up to? How might we better express our identity, anchored in the gospel, and our vision for a redeemed world? This is hard work, but it is possible, and increasingly urgent.

Finally, may we learn from the hymn of Christ’s self emptying: though we are Christ’s body, let us not regard being his body here as something to be exploited or taken for granted, but empty ourselves, becoming servants to the world, since we are in the world.

The Rev. Juan M. Cabrero Oliver is the ninth Custodian of the Book of Common Prayer and the former president of Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.


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