Guest Post: Mother M on Common Prayer

The “Common” in Common Prayer

What exactly is “common prayer”? In the Anglican/Episcopal
tradition we use this term frequently: our main liturgical book is titled The
Book of Common Prayer
. Yet it is a phrase so commonly used that I think we
often gloss over it and fail to think about what it really means. I must
confess that I never really thought about it until I read my husband’s blog and
saw his questions and invitation to post for the carnival. Common prayer is a
compilation of prayers and liturgies that we as a denomination hold to be
representative of our faith. These prayers and liturgies are grounded in
scripture, reason (to some extent), tradition and history. They are used
throughout the world or country as the norm—the core. There have been a number
of BCP’s over the last 458 years. There have been many revisions during this
time, but the core of the BCP has
remained mostly the same. The 1928 BCP for example has mostly been retained in
the current 1979 BCP. Many of the forms have been revised, condensed or used in
different ways in the newer version, but the core of our faith can still be
found. While I am pretty content with the 79 BCP, I know that the day is fast
approaching when the Church will have to reevaluate and revise the current
prayer book. I believe a new book will be inevitable when the current BCP is no
longer able to adequately address the larger Church in terms of social
concerns, liturgical language (language and images), pastoral needs, and
mission. The world we live in today, while changing quickly, is still not that
different from 1979 that we would need a new prayer book yet. That is where
supplemental and trial liturgies fit in (that is a whole other essay for
another time). So, I don’t see “common prayer” changing all that much in the 21st
century. In order for this to happen though here are some tips I would offer to
those revising the BCP:

  • remain
    faithful to the Scriptures and the liturgy of the early church
  • unify
    the Church
  • edify
    the people

As Marion Hatchett in his Commentary on the American
Prayer Book
reminds us, these three points have been kept in mind during
previous prayer book revisions and should be for future ones as well. I also
would hope that the revisers would continue to draw from:

  • Scripture
  • Church
  • Historic

Of course these things would be in combination with the
present world/culture/church conditions as well as missionary needs, pastoral
needs, and social needs/concerns. One of the points of the BCP as I see it is
to draw those in the Anglican communion closer to each other rather than
tearing us apart. The BCP addresses the needs and concerns through prayer and
liturgy of the whole body, not just one member.

There are a couple of other ways to think of “common” as
well: one way to think of common prayer that dates back to the medieval church
is as the regular or cyclic services of the Church (the Daily Office, the
Litany, and Eucharist) in contrast to the occasional sacraments/services and
other rites that ritually mark particular points in the Christian life. Alternatively,
common prayer could also mean those sacraments/rites/services that are for all
people and not just clergy and monastics. Participation in the liturgy as
opposed to the liturgy being done on one’s behalf (mass intentions). This is
one of the obvious shifts of Cranmer’s first BCP in 1549 compared with the
medieval mass. Any thoughts or ideas on this are most welcome!

One last thought on “common” prayer before shifting to local
organic liturgies. Common prayer in my dream world would include a common ordo
too. Currently the Anglican bodies do not have this and I often wonder what it
is that is holding us altogether if we actually don’t have a book of common
prayer or a common ordo. Ordo refers to the pattern of essential
elements in worship and their ritual ordering. Anyway, I see this uncommon ordo
to be a problem if we say we are in communion with each other. We ought to—at
the very least—have this in common. It makes me think: what in the world is the
Anglican communion anyway? There are two reasons that I can see why we need a
common ordo. First, it gives us an identity as a faith community. Second,
it strengthens our relations with other Anglican groups and, in theory, helps
us to support each other. For lack of time I have not thought anymore on this
subject, but I do strongly believe it to be quite important to the future of
both the Anglican communion and “Common” Prayer in the 21st century.

Local Organic Liturgies

Local organic liturgies certainly have their place in
worship, but I do not think they should be included in a book of common prayer
such as the BCP. There is a definite need for services to reach out to specific
ethnic groups. More should definitely be included of their culture, practices,
and traditions and they should be able to use these types of services with
ease. However, they should still use, know, and participate in the BCP’s
prayers and liturgies on a fairly regular basis since that is what is common
and the core of our faith. Newer local customs and liturgies are just that—local,
so it does not really fit in with my idea of common prayer.

New prayers and
liturgies are okay and actually should be encouraged as we need liturgical
imagination for our current age. The phrase “liturgical imagination” often gets
a bad rap when referring to certain forms of non-traditional ways of worship—like
decorating the altar with fabric and other crap as they did at one of the three
seminaries I have attended… This is not what I mean when I use the phrase. All
I am saying is that we need language and images that speak to our time, culture,
and social situation. These do not have to be new or non-traditional. We just
have to constantly reevaluate our worship and liturgies and make sure they are
meeting the needs and concerns of our current society. Those who know me know
how much I love old things and tradition, particularly in all things
liturgical. I love[most of ]Ritual
—need I say more? Anyway, sometimes the old just doesn’t work. (Though
often it does.) As Gordon Lathrop reminds us in his book Holy Things the
old is made to speak the new. It is all
about juxtaposition (also another essay for another time).

Mother M

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mother M on Common Prayer

  1. Pingback: "Common" Prayer in the 21st Century « haligweorc

  2. lutherpunk

    Mother M -I think you are right about the ordo as a unifying pattern. As I wrote, I think there can be a diversity of practice so long as the essence of the ordo is followed. In the future, this may be the only thing that unifies us in the face of ever diverse worship practice.

  3. Dr. D

    Mother M has missed the most central point to Common Prayer, as has just about all of the Episcopal Church (TEC). It was intended to be about “common” prayer, everyone praying the same way, unity of the Church in the form of prayer. This is an impossibility when a variety of Rites is introduced, as in Rites I and II of the 1979 book. This is a mistaken step in the pursuit of relevance and novelty when in fact it simply leads to a lack of focus and irrelevance. The Mass and the Daily Offices become entertainment rather than worship, a great mistake. TEC has gone off the rails and is unlikely to ever recover.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks for your thought Dr. D–but I disagree. Difference is not necessarily just about novelty. If the church requires unity than how ever did the Western Church survive before Trent when there was a wide variety of rites spread throughout the West? And that’s just the Latinate side of the Church… I think that it has far more to do with a desire to follow the Lord Jesus than simply rigid liturgical uniformity.

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