Lee on the BCP

I’ve just finished Jeffrey Lee’s Opening the Prayer Book which is volume 7 in The New Church’s Teaching Series. Reading this was a very thought-provoking experience on a couple of levels. On one hand, the work itself is interesting, written in a colloquial and engaging fashion, and makes a definite case. As I was reading, I found myself stopping and asking how and why I would say something differently, approach something from another angle. Having just finished looking at Vicki Black’s book, I noted commonalities and consensus between the two with which I would not agree that gave me good questions around what is generally believed and taught and the degree to which I agree with this taught consensus. I also found myself asking how I define theology and spirituality, where I would draw the line between the two, and why (and to what degree) such a line matters. As I said—a thought-provoking read.

There is much that I like about this book. In particular, Lee emphasizes two critical points:

  1. Liturgy and the life of faith are dynamically interconnected. The liturgy—experienced to its full—changes lives.
  2. The prayer book enables a system of Christian habits oriented by our corporate liturgical prayer. Eucharist and the Office aren’t simply alternate choices for Sunday morning, but are part of a coherent pattern of Christian worship with deep historical and theological roots.

Lee talks about history and relates it to the prayer book, but he has not written either a prayer book history or a history of the rites of the prayer book. Instead, he discusses history in order to demonstrate that there is an historically grounded pattern of worship of which the current American prayer book is the participant par excellence. He then presents a theological orientation to the prayer book, locating its center in the Easter Vigil, then moving from the paired Eucharist and Office to the other rites of the book.

One of his central theses is that the current American prayer book displays its excellence through apparently contradictory impulses of complexity and simplicity. That is, he sees the massive multiplication of liturgical options as a sign of healthy organic growth that, at the same time, simplifies the rites as a whole because the basic foundational pattern of the rites is more apparent even through the flowering of options. The ’79 rites more fully cohere with the ancient intentions of Christian worship than even earlier Anglican rites, and thus their framework offers a superior entre into the Christian liturgical experience despite the contents of the elements in the framework. (Those familiar with Gordon Lathrop’s work will see his fingerprints all over this perspective and Lee cites him a number of times.) This gives Lee the freedom to embrace the trajectory of liturgical diversification represented by Enriching Our Worship and similar initiatives with open arms: as long as the framework coheres with his sense of the pattern, the content can be fluid.

It’s an interesting perspective, but not one with which I can wholly agree. Such a perspective when taken too far can become quite cavalier about the actual content of Christian worship; Lee doesn’t go there, but neither do I find him drawing the boundary lines that would have to be drawn concerning content.

Perhaps my central point of disagreement with Lee is in his synthesis of Christian liturgical history and his notion of a single correct primitive pattern of Christian worship from which the past departed, to which the Reformation pointed, until ultimately recaptured by the Liturgical Renewal Movement. Following this kind of a pattern it’s inevitable that the word “medieval” will become a swear word as it represents the nadir of falling away from the primitive pattern. And such is certainly the case throughout this book. As a student of medieval liturgy, this struck me as a bit short-sighted…

On one hand, I fault failures in his synthesis. In particular, he falls into the trope (also found in Black’s book) that in the (Western—the East is never in view) medieval period, liturgy and its spirituality became the sole preserve of the clergy and monastic elite who alone inhabited and understood it. First, this ignores the vibrant tradition of lay liturgical spirituality represented by the Books of Hours and prymers. Second, I believe it assumes a much more educated clergy than the sources do. Latin literacy of average parochial clergy would not have been that much greater than many of their congregants requiring a different perspective on the assumed (and perhaps largely constructed) gulf between the understanding of the laity and the clergy.

On the other hand, such a synthesis raises again the theological problem of the Holy Spirit. If the entire body of Christendom—East and West—fell into such significant error around our fundamental worship practices, what exactly was the Holy Spirit up to with reference to the Church? Did it take a millennium-long nap and only conveniently wake up for the Western Reformation? Sorry—I have a really hard time buying it… Yes, the Liturgical Renewal Movement did some great work. Yes, there are aspects of our current prayer book that seem to better reflect the spirit of apostolic worship than our caricature of a thirteen century non-communicating High Mass. And yet, I can’t go along with the notion that the medieval liturgical experience, the spirituality that supported it, and the thinking, writing, and praying that came out of it (think Julian of Norwich, for example…) was entirely an aberration.

At the end of the day, I find Lee’s book to be a big step closer to what I’m looking for than others. Its emphasis on a pattern of Christian liturgy informing Christian life and on the prayer book offering a system of habits is most salutary. However, its historical synthesis and its over-emphasis on framework as opposed to content give me pause. I could see myself use this in a discussion group, using it as a text to be engaged and wrestled with rather than subscribed to.

Up next, Louis Weil’s A Theology of Worship likewise from The New Church’s Teaching Series…

3 thoughts on “Lee on the BCP

  1. Mockingbird

    I found Lee’s book to be quite good, except for its last chapter, which is naive, silly, and self-contradictory.

    Weill’s earlier book, Liturgy for Living, wasn’t bad, though it gave very little attention to music. But his later book, A Theology of Worship, is one of the worst books on liturgy I have even encountered.

    The books of hours and primers indicate a flourishing spiritual life among the literate laity. But is is still fair to fault the medieval liturgy for having no real place even for devout lay-folk. Here is St. Margaret’s (Queen of Scots) biographer:

    “How she was wont to lead her life in the 40 days before Christmas, and in the whole tide of Lent, I shall now try to say. When she has rested a little in the beginning of the night, having gone into the church she went through the Matins of the Holy Trinity, then of the Holy Cross, then of Saint Mary by herself. Once these were done, she began the Offices of the Dead; after them, she began the Psalter, nor did she leave off until she had worked through to the end. While the priests were celebrating Lauds at the appropriate hour, she either completed the Psalter she had begin, or, if she had already finished it once, she will already have begun another [recitation].”

    St. Margaret is in the church while “the priests” were saying their hours. But she sits apart and reads psalms privately, instead of joining them. It’s fine that she was able to say psalms. It’s not so fine that she was barred by custom from joining the choir in their songs.

  2. Isaac

    There’s a strain in some of the Liturgical Movement that seems to be Landmark Baptist-y or Restorationist… Everything was going along fine till some kind of outside force wrecked up the place, and, whaddyaknow? I have the secret to making all things right again. The difference between that and some of the more reactionary traddie stuff is simply where they individual “brackets” when things were right and when things went wrong.

    The Liturgical Movement corrected a lot of excesses that creeped in over the years, and for that I’m grateful. But this attitude of revolution, rather than reform, doesn’t seem to be healthy to me. I do wonder what the result would’ve been if the same kind of interior life the medieval literates showed was modeled by the laity and clergy in the years preceding the Liturgical Movement’s work.

  3. Pingback: Medieval Liturgy | As the sun in its orb

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