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‘Let the liturgy be’

By Victor Lee Austin

Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appeared in the Nov. 13 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. 

To speak of mission is, in every instance, for the Church to speak of the being of God. The fundamental missions are the begetting of the Son by the Father, and the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. To put this far too briefly, we can distinguish (but not separate) the being of God in himself, the “ontological” Trinity, and the being of God in relation to the created world, the “economic” Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is ever pouring himself out in love. This is first a description of his being. But it also describes his relationship with the world, which he was under no compulsion whatsoever to make.

The mission of the Son is nothing but to receive the love that is bestowed upon him from the Father, and to return that love to the Father in an act of counter-bestowal (and to complete the picture we might say that the kiss bestowed upon this exchange is the Holy Spirit). This dynamic exchange of love is just who God is. But in terms of the economic Trinity, the mission of the Son is the Father sending him into the world to be human: a full, complete, sinless, authentic human being. The Father gave the Son that mission, and the Son freely accepted it, not reckoning his divinity as something to cling to (cf. Phil. 2:6), but emptying himself in complete humility, which is to say complete obedience. The result was his death. He died because, although he was fully human, no one else was: everyone else was a sinner.

Yet his mission was not over when he died. His Father, to whom he had abandoned himself, did not abandon him to death, but rather raised him up: the consummate action of love, restoring the Son to life in the Spirit. And once he had ascended to his Father’s right hand, he “gave gifts unto men” (Eph. 4:8). As the King of kings, the Son bestows gifts of patronage upon his people, the first and greatest of those gifts being the Spirit.

Such is the context for speech about mission. The Church’s mission is ever and only a participation in the mission of the Son from the Father, a participation given to us by the Holy Spirit.

The connection of liturgy with mission, as we receive it from God, is clearest in the liturgy of Holy Communion. This service puts us in remembrance of the night before Jesus died, when he took bread and wine, identified them with himself given over to death, and commanded that a similar action be done in his remembrance until his coming again. The liturgy of Holy Communion is the Church’s obedience to Jesus’ obedience. Jesus was obedient to the mission given to him by his Father even unto death, and likewise the Church is obedient to this, if you will, extension of Jesus’ mission in which we proclaim “the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). And in our obedience we show forth what all prayer is. Prayer is abandonment of the self to God, a complex dynamic of receiving God’s love — which is first of all simple thankfulness for one’s mere existence, and then thankfulness for the many gifts we enjoy within our lives — followed by the giving over of the self to God.

All prayer puts us right where the liturgy of Holy Communion puts us: with Jesus in his self-offering upon the cross. And we are able to do this thanks to the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us as the patronage gift of the ascended Jesus.

These thoughts are in line with what St. Paul writes to the Romans. When we pray, the Spirit within us sighs — is praying with groanings too deep for words — and we cry out (with Jesus) “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:26,15). Prayer is the Holy Spirit within us communicating with the Father through the Son. This is possible because of Jesus’ obedience unto death, his Father’s enduring love, and the consequent patronage gift of the Holy Spirit.

So Stanley Hauerwas is right to say, as he likes to, that the mission of the Church is first off to be the Church. We are the Church when we celebrate this liturgy in which we “remember” the mission. Yet these are deep truths shrouded in mystery, not capable of being grasped instantly. And that is why Holy Communion has never been the only public liturgy for Anglicans, nor has it ever been placed first in the Book of Common Prayer.

This has to do with the need for mission in the more ordinary sense of the word. Jesus’ heart goes out to those who are lost or wounded or victimized by cultural forces and the false gods of the age. The Church’s mission is to offer Jesus, to bring Jesus to them.

And so while our various churches have, in the past couple of generations, renewed the centrality of the Eucharist for our worship, we may not have given sufficient thought to the evangelical importance of Morning and Evening Prayer, those magnificent achievements of Cranmerian simplicity bequeathed to us in the first Book of Common Prayer. Any person can walk in off the street for Matins or Evensong and never be put on the spot. There will be no awkwardness of whether they could or should come forward for Communion; the service just happens for them, where they are.

It is significant that the names for these services are Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. They are prayer services, which means they are located at the cross. But in an almost naive simplicity, Morning and Evening Prayer offer Jesus in the simple, plain reading of Scripture. They offer Jesus in the form of God’s word written. Of course, the word can be interpreted, with the addition of a sermon or informal ferverino. But the main thing is the word, presented with the implicit trust that Jesus is the subject and author of the entire Bible, and that Jesus will speak through the spoken word. The traditional canticles — Benedictus always in the morning, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis always in the evening — make this point, as they give a Christological response to the Old and New Testament readings of the day. Prayer is culminating response, but prayer points ultimately to Holy Communion.

It takes some rather esoteric thinking to comprehend the point of daily services of Holy Communion. Indeed, in some parts of the Church it remains a divided question. But daily prayer is a no-brainer. It is good to read some of the Bible every day, and to read a lot of the Bible over time, and indeed to work through most of the Bible in the course of any lectionary scheme.

Whatever is best in the liturgical pattern of any church will be culturally conditioned. Many non-Anglican evangelical churches today are excellent at introducing people to Christ, and through that introduction, fostering growth in holiness, helping people live more godly lives, and so forth. Yet these churches generally lack a sense of the greater tradition of the Church. They tend to lack liturgical forms shaped by the ages. When such people come to an Anglican church, they often discover with wonder that worship can have dignity, that prayers out of a book can be biblically profound, and that a sense of simplicity and transcendence can be given in worship. These are newcomers to Anglicanism that we should prize, and not only because they already know that they ought to tithe!

This observation is at the same time an indictment of some Anglican practice. Why don’t we do a better job of primary evangelism? One answer, surely, is that as a church we have prized our liturgy as an end in itself. We have not understood that there is a movement from the ontological Trinity, to the cross, to our participation in prayer, to proclamation and discipleship and service. Another answer is that we spend inordinate time trying to make our liturgy “work”: too much time on prayer book revision and supplementation, too much time on trying to make the weekly service relevant and meaningful. Perhaps we should spend time doing other things like seeking and teaching and catechizing and discipling, and let the liturgy be.

But there is a deeper answer: intellectual laziness. Too many of us do not know, and are not able to explain, how thoroughly saturated the classical Books of Common Prayer are in Scripture. My parents do not have a liturgical bone in their body. But when I became an Episcopalian and they came to church with me, they loved it. Why? Not for its beauty or for the dignity of our worship. Rather, because they could perceive, being themselves steeped in the Bible, how every prayer we say, every line of our precious book, comes from the Word, comes from Jesus:

  • Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open: There’s Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple: “for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men” (1 Kgs. 8:39).
  • All desires known: “Lord, thou knowest all my desire; and my groaning is not hid from thee” (Ps. 38:9).
  • And from whom no secrets are hid: Daniel declares to king Belteshazzar, “there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets” (Dan. 2:28).
  • Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit: Simeon said to Mary that “the thoughts of many hearts” would be revealed by her Son (Luke 2:35) and the Psalmist prayed: “Make me a clean heart, O God … take not thy holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:10-11).
  • That we may perfectly love thee: “whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected” (1 John 2:5), and “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us” (4:12).
  • And worthily magnify thy holy Name: “Remember that thou magnify his [God’s] work” (Job 36:24); “O praise the LORD with me, and let us magnify his Name together” (Ps. 34:3); “My soul doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46).

Permeated, marinated, soaked, thoroughly imbued with Scripture, which is not window dressing, neither direct citations, nor proof texts for an argument, but an environment, a world, an ocean. If it is true to say of God that in him we live and move and have our being, then it is just as true that in God’s Word written the prayer book lives and moves and has its being. If we could recover this, not to monkey with our liturgies, but to take such prayer books as we have and reclaim a knowledge for ourselves of their scriptural provenance, there is no telling what effect this might have on our participation in the great and cosmic mission of Christ, sent from his Father to plant the Spirit in our hearts: because the first and last word about God is love, and he desires in truth that all people might turn to him and live.

The Rev. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence in the Diocese of Dallas. This essay is adapted from an address he delivered at Trinity School for Ministry.


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