Following my “almost manifesto” on the need to teach the spirituality of the BCP to the church rather than simply teaching points of historical development and an initial start in that direction, I’ve received a number of requests concerning what resources are available to do this.
It’s a good and important question to which I am attempting to find an answer…
In response to my post, JD Ballard put up a solid post that moves the ball a bit further down the field than mine.
I also started wondering about the popular introductions to the BCP that have been put out by the Church Publishing and others. I confess that my own studies of the BCP have come in through the back rather than the front, so to speak. That is, I’ve engaged it as someone grounded in the medieval English liturgical tradition and early history of the BCP and have largely skipped over introductory works. As a result, I’ve realized that it’s time to go ahead and do that.
I’m in the process of surveying some books on the topic and will post thoughts here as I read through them. My focus here will not be to offer a general review of the books and their content but to ask the narrow and specific question of how how well they work as resources for teaching either laity or clergy the spirituality of the BCP.
While it’s not necessarily an introduction, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with Hatchett. Typically, clergy offices and the bookshelves of interested laity contain a copy of Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book. As a result, when clergy or lay leaders want to know or do something with a part of the prayer book, this tends to be where they go first. That’s a natural response. In fact, it’s a learned response because most folks who have taken formal academic coursework on the prayer book did this for homework. Unfortunately, it’s not the best response when dealing with the topic at hand.
Hatchett’s book is an excellent tool and does what it is intended to do very well. A quick glance at the table of contents shows how the book is structured and lets us know how it’s going to proceed. As most commentaries do (biblical or otherwise) it cleaves to the order of the text and moves systematically from part to part. For major portions, the text is organized in two logical units labelled “Background” and “Commentary”. The “Background” section gives a brief treatise on the history of the rite or concept as a whole touching on some theological themes or changes but speaking primarily about historical changes to the structure and/or content of the matter at hand. The “Commentary” serves to point out applicable rubrics, suggest when various options might be utilized, to point out theological differences between the ’79 book and earlier forms, and to identify the source of the prayer book text.
I go to Hatchett when I want to see how he draws a big-picture synthesis of a particular change to a rite or when I want to know when, where, and for what purpose a particular prayer was composed. That is, I’ll approach a prayer from the Gelasian Missal differently from one written in 1662 o in the 1930s. Not that the earlier one is necessarily better, but knowing the sources gives me insight into why certain concepts or doctrines are framed the way they were—what the prayer is and is not saying and what fights it’s either picking, avoiding, or totally oblivious of.
Knowledge of this sort is, for the most part, not particularly useful for entering into the spirituality of the text. Rarely does knowing the origin of something help me pray it better, more attentively, more intently. Understanding the organization of the rite does play into our ability to access its spirituality, but our spiritual appreciation of a rite’s movement is rarely tied to understanding the historical movement of distinct elements. Rather it’s understanding how the flow leads our spirits in particular directions and this is a not a topic that Hatchett has helped me see. Again—that’s not his intention either.
Thus, Hatchett gives us a very useful tool for understanding the history of our rites. I don’t agree with him in all particulars, especially in his syntheses (I’d accent certain things differently), but there is no other resources that gives such a clear identification of the sources of the prayer book elements. Its value for understanding and communicating the spirituality of the texts described is limited. Yet time and again when I hear presentations on liturgy they fall back into this pattern and model.
I’ve also been reading Deacon Vicki Black’s Welcome to the Book of Common Prayer in the Kindle form (hence no page numbers—sorry…). This is a brief introduction to the prayer book that serves as both an introduction and an apologia. That is, it’s aimed at communicating to a broadly American protestant audience that may be slightly suspicious of a book of “wrote-down prayers.” The writing style is friendly and accessible, leaving aside the bulk of the liturgical jargon and explaining terms that would be unfamiliar. The perspective presented is a middle-of-the-road trending higher. Thus, it acknowledges that there will be differences between high and low liturgies and mentions that a thurible might be present at some elements (like a Eucharistic Gospel procession), but otherwise takes a Broad Church line.
The table of contents shows that the ordering of liturgies is somewhat different from the BCP itself; it follows the order in which the liturgies might be encountered by a visitor or seeker, starting with Baptism, then going to Eucharist, then the Offices, and then into the pastoral rites. However, the approach within the rites themselves is also cast within an historical mode. While Hatchett and I prefer to look at liturgies by beginning with the 2nd or 4th century and moving to the present day, Black resolutely begins with the perspective of the present prayer book, and looks at the history in light of where we are now, highlighting in particular continuities between present and past practice but also noting spots where we differ from either historical practice or other Christian groups.
Because it’s a short book with limited space for each topic, Black does a lot of synthesis in describing the history of churches and rites. Aside from a few factual errors my main disagreements with the book would be in how these syntheses are sketched. In particular, the relationship between the pre- and post-Reformation churches seems much to discontinuous for my liking and follows the standard narrative that all of the liturgies were taken away from the people and were the preserve of the clergy and religious. Books of Hours in this section are mentioned in passing only, and are explained as one-volume breviaries which fails to capture their spirit or their use. (This definition is corrected to a slight degree in the section on the Office but not to my satisfaction.) While this may seem a minor point, I’d argue that overlooking the place of the Books of Hours, prymers, and lay mass devotionals presents a much more discontinuous picture of English spirituality pre- and post-Reformation than was actually the case.
Black does weave in some comments on theology and spirituality. For instance, her discussion of how we engage the words of the liturgies—following the words of the book in common with the church and one another, but ideally not getting hung up on the words themselves—or her discussion on the spirit of the Daily Office as offering are helpful but brief. Again, she’s writing a brief introduction; spirituality is not her focus.
In summary, Black’s book does what it intends to do—to give an accessible introduction to the prayer book for those getting into it for the first time. History is its main paradigm. Attention to spirituality is present but not prevalent. While this book would be a good MOTR introduction, it cannot serve as a text for teaching prayer book spirituality without significant addition and adaptation.
This is where I shall pause…
I’m also reading Jeffrey Lee’s Opening the Prayer Book and will give it a post of its own once I’ve finished it and collected my thoughts; my initial sense is that this work is more what we’re looking for. I also intend to write-up a bit concerning where the teaching of prayer book history falls in the teaching of prayer book spirituality. In my experience and in the historical orientation of the books surveyed to this point, the teaching of history is often done in place of the teaching of spirituality or—perhaps more unfortunately—the teaching of history is mistaken for the teaching of spirituality.