Tag Archives: Prayer Book Spirituality Project

Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part III

Ok, back from vacation, on with the project


If intentionality is about keeping ourselves focused on the big picture, then attentiveness is the related-but-different discipline of keeping our eye on the little picture. It’s the discipline of remaining in the present and being attentive to what we’re doing, the words we’re hearing, the words we’re saying, the rite which we’re experiencing. Remaining in the moment.

Most of us like to think we’re pretty good at this already. Alas, it only takes a brief experiment to show us how wrong we are… Go ahead—try to make the exercise of remaining in the present as simple as you can. Cut out all distractions and attempt to sit in silence for as little as five minutes; remain attentive and present by counting your breaths up to ten and starting over again. If you’re anything like me, it won’t take too long before your mind is flitting all over the place, you realize that you stopped counting a while back—or you discover that while you finished planning your grocery list you’ve counted up to 25! This phenomenon is aptly described by Zen teachers as “monkey mind.” You discover that however disciplined you thought your thoughts were, they dash around like a hyper little primate at the drop of a hat.

Here’s the thing—this isn’t a function of trying to sit in silence and count breaths: this is what it does all the time! The counting of breaths just helps us to notice it more clearly. Hence the need for attentiveness. And, as much as I’d like to be able to blame it on mobile devices, or the internet, or cable TV, Christian spiritual writers have been wrestling with it since at least the 4th century and likely earlier. So, how do we cage the little monkey for as long as we need to pray, to sing, to join in the worship of God?

This one requires a multi-pronged approach. The first and most basic is to recognize that the situation exists in the first place. When you’re in a service and the realization hits you that your mind has wandered, gently but firmly direct it back. Don’t beat yourself up about it—as your mind will only use that an excuse to go wandering off again about what a failure you are! As frequently as you find yourself wandering, just direct yourself back.

One of the few bodily gestures inserted into English canon law also provides an opportunity for attentiveness. In 1604, canon 18 enjoined that everyone present should make “due and lowly reverence” at the name of Jesus—that is, bow the head. At the parish where I learned this custom, it was explained as an honoring of the Incarnation. As a result, the head was bowed whenever the name “Jesus,” “Mary,” or the saint of the day were named as each reminded us of God’s incarnational presence in the world. I find that this sort of brief physical response helps me to pay better attention—to listen harder and can help me stay focused more clearly on the task at hand.

When praying alone from a book or saying the Daily Office by yourself, another tactic for retaining attentiveness is to engage as many senses as possible. Reading silently gives your mind ample opportunities for wandering. The act of reading aloud greatly improves the experience: you get the lips moving, and you hear the sound of your own words in additional to the passing of the mind over the letters. Adding in further physical gestures—like bowing or crossing yourself or kneeling—may help.

A 14th century devotional for English nuns recommends that attentiveness is much improved when you remember yourself to be in the presence of Jesus and picture him close by you. If you hold in mind the sense that you are speaking your words of praise directly to him, the feeling of being in conversation can help keep you more attentive.

The same devotional also makes a broad statement, noting that inattention in saying the Office is related to inattentive habits outside of the Office as well. I think I’d rather say it the other way: habits of discipline outside of worship help us be more disciplined with in it. As far as habits of discipline go, there’s none better than a daily bout of breath meditation as mentioned above. Simply sitting in silence for ten to twenty minutes, counting your breaths to ten, then starting over again, is a very useful tool for learning your mind more deeply, getting a handle on your inner life, and gradually soothing the hyper little primate that seems to live there.

I have heard some people express concerns over such a practice because it is “Buddhist” rather than being properly “Christian.” To my mind that’s as silly as a wrestler saying that he couldn’t do push-ups because they’re a “football” exercise. Just as push-ups are a universal fitness exercise found all over, breath meditation in various forms, under various names, and taught in various ways is a virtually universal tool for spiritual fitness. While it may be best known in modern America as a Zen practice, it’s been part of Christian spiritual practice at least since the time of the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers—if not before. (We’ll talk more about this when we discuss the Office and, in particular, our practices of praying the psalms.) Breath meditation is also an excellent foundational discipline if you choose to explore the tradition of contemplative prayer.

At the end of the day, attentiveness touches deep chords around the practices of an intentional, incarnational life. The principal of incarnation takes seriously the reality of God, the ongoing presence of Christ, the movement of the Holy Spirit bound up within our normal, daily, earthly life—the “full homely divinity” rightly celebrated in our Anglican tradition. If we’re not able to be fully present in the present of each moment, then these daily incarnations, these moments of God’s self-revelation, will slip past us, unnoticed as our minds flit from past to present to imaginary worlds of our own making.


While I’m tempted to file this discipline as a subset of “attentiveness,” it’s important enough to earn its own section. We’re more attentive in corporate worship when we can follow along, and—while we are a people of the book—that doesn’t always mean we have to be stuck in the book! One of the glories of worship conducted in the tradition of the prayer book is that so much of it repeats, both daily and weekly. As a result, over time, it will become ingrained in your memory whether you want it to or not.

When my elder daughter was quite small—maybe 4 or so—I was concerned about her lack of attention during church; she would frequently be coloring when I wanted her to be paying attention (but, since she was at least being quiet I didn’t make a fuss…). Then, one day, I noticed a strange sight: of her own volition she went into our parlor, lined up her stuffed animals in front of a small organ bench topped with a cross she’d swiped from somewhere, and began “doing church” complete with most of Eucharistic Prayer A! I learned two very important things from this—first, that attentiveness may come in a variety of forms (especially from the young); second, that memorization occurs naturally with the prayer book rite.

It’s easier to be attentive to words that are already a part of us. It’s easier to stay focused on prayers we already know when praying alone. It’s easier to stay focused on the words the priest is praying if we’re praying them silently along with her. Memorization can happen by osmosis—indeed, it’s easiest if it happens that way—but the passive acquisition of the liturgy is only enhanced when we set out to actively acquire it as well.
As in acting, make sure you know your own lines first… Memorize the congregational parts of the Eucharist. Make sure you know the fundamentals: the basic responses, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Creed, the Confession, the Post-Communion prayers. Then, the central canticles of the Office: the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Mary, the Song of Simeon. Other pieces will suggest themselves to you from there.

We’ll talk about this later, but the collects of the prayer book represent a great distillation of our tradition. And when I say tradition, I mean that our prayer book includes collects from the time of the Fathers down to the present with many of the Sunday collects have their origins in the 6th or 7th centuries. Taking the time each week to commit the collect to memory will place you in living conversation with these spiritual and theological gems.

I’ve found that the more I memorize (or the more that memorization happens to me) the more I understand the inter-relation of our liturgical language. For instance, I remember the first time I realized that the words “…walking in holiness and righteousness…”in the General Thanksgiving at Morning and Evening Prayer come from the Song of Zechariah (“…holy and righteous in his sight…”). Then, a while later, reading an alternate history book set in post-Civil War America by a favorite (Jewish) sci-fi author, I was astounded to see a speech put in the mouth of a character that concluded with a rhetorical flourish including the words “holiness and righteousness” and an image of “the dawn from on high breaking upon us…to lead our feet in the ways of peace.” The Author’s Note confirmed that the speech had been adapted from an actual address of the period, and—without having to look it up—I recognized from the rhythms and the rhetoric a 19th century prayer book Episcopalian connecting with his audience through words familiar to them all.

Indeed, this is how the real fruits of memorization occur. Little bits of the liturgies will float up unannounced. Maybe it’ll be sparked by a couple of words put in combination by a colleague or a snatch of song—they’ll strike a chord with something buried in your memory. Often, my most fruitful theological thoughts and connections will occur in this way as my subconscious mulls over something I’ve memorized without being quite aware of it. It’s moments like these that move us closer to the habitual recollection of God, that end to which liturgical spirituality directs.


This one’s pretty obvious but it still needs to be said. We’re talking about habits, about formation, about the process of constructing an abiding Christian character through the discipline of regular worship leading towards the habitual recollection of God. It can’t happen without diligence. Acts don’t become habits if they’re not practiced on a regular, repeating basis. Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s ethics hits it right on the nose: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The same is true of spirituality. It’s not an act (or, alternatively, if we don’t want it to be an act…), it must be a habit.

A devotion like the Daily Office does its work in a period measured by decades, not moments or occasions. We can’t pray it occasionally and expect it to bear the fruit that it’s able to. Likewise, treating the corporate worship of the church as a once a month, drop-in-if-the-mood-strikes affair fails to train us in the paths of holiness in the ways that weekly attendance does.

This is not to try and set up a New Legalism. There was a letter that started floating around Europe and the Middle East at some point in the sixth century, originally composed in Latin and eventually translated into virtually every medieval local language of which we have record. It was allegedly written by Christ himself in heaven and dropped through the clouds into Jerusalem, and it is filled with dire warnings against anyone who didn’t go to church on Sundays and who did any sort of “secular” work. In countries where people did work, it threatened plagues, and famines, and widespread disasters. I’m happy to say that several councils and church leaders did denounce this crude attempt at social control—including St. Boniface, the 8th century English-born Apostle to the Germans who had stern words for those who circulated it—yet the mentality that it evoked and effects it wrought in law codes across Europe persist to the modern day. We don’t go to church on Sunday lest God blast us; rather it is both our duty and delight to worship together the God who formed us, who loves us, and who was willing to become incarnate and suffer bodily for our redemption and reconciliation.

At its most basic, the discipline of diligence is about priorities. To what degree are we willing to spend our most precious coin, that which we can neither earn nor hoard: our time? The way we choose our activities reveals our priorities above all else. Any relationship worth having must be nurtured with this precious commodity, and our relationship with God is no different.

As the father of two active children, I know how difficult it can be to carve out time. In our time-strapped pluralistic age, schedulers of sporting events and dance rehearsals think nothing of seizing the Sunday morning time slot. While creative use of the available options (like Saturday or Sunday evening services—right, clergy friends?) can help negotiate this treacherous turf, sometimes decisions have to be made. And on those mornings with no good alternatives when ballet wins (I’m looking at you, mandatory Nutcracker dress-rehearsal), do we have the persistence to substitute a family act of worship in lieu of the full-on corporate experience?

To tell the truth, I’m also sometimes envious of my priestly wife and clergy friends for whom praying the Daily Office is (or could be or should be) part of their paid work. As a layman, I can only imagine my boss’s response to a request for paid prayer time! Instead the Offices have to be fit into carefully carved out niches of time that occur between child care and house work and relationship maintenance and regular employment. I’ll freely admit that sometimes those carefully carved niches collapse; sometimes the time I think I have disappears. There are days when the set prayer just doesn’t happen. On those days, I try to at least glance over the psalms for the day, and if that doesn’t happen at least hit the memorized high-points of the Office, and if that doesn’t happen at least a quick prayer of apology. In the grand scheme of things, at least feeling guilty about missing the Office is itself an act of diligence!

On a more serious note, though, while holding up the importance of diligence, we also have to approach the spiritual life as a marathon, not a sprint. This is a life-long path we tread. There will be seasons of our lives where time is easier to find or harder to find. There will be periods where the blocks of time come more freely to our hands, and those when it will not. This, too, is part of the ebb and flow of incarnate life. Our goal should be to be as diligent as possible given the conditions within which we find ourselves.

On Liturgical History, Meaning, and Function

Again—just a quick thought, but one that I’ve been rolling around for a while in relation to my Prayer Book Spirituality project.

Liturgists, clergy, and those who teach the faith need to be careful when they make claims about the meaning and function of parts of our liturgy based on history.

The reason why things were put in long ago are not necessarily the reasons why they are useful and valuable now. The function that a certain liturgical element had may no longer be the same based on what else has shifted around it.

Liturgies are not just texts—they are always and should be approached fundamentally as enacted practices. However, we do encounter them (particularly historical liturgies) preeminently as texts and we apply principles of textual interpretation to them as we read them and make sense of them.

I’m going to caricature a little bit now… I see some people using historical criticism as a base reading paradigm. As in biblical  scholarship, this perspective believes that identifying when an element came in, where it came from, and why it was added is determinative for what that element means. I wouldn’t agree. I think the history is important to know, but that it operates on the role of being a supplementary fact that may or may not have any real impact on the use and function of an element now.

I prefer to take a reader-response approach as a primary tool among others in my interpretive toolkit. The question I ask, then, is “How have and how do people encounter what’s there largely apart from the original intentions of the authors, editors, and compilers?” This is one of the reasons that I love looking at the late medieval devotional guides for the Mass: they show the wide diversity of actual concrete readings of the liturgy operating from a radical ignorance of liturgical history and development. These texts discover, locate, and/or impose meaning on the liturgy in a variety of ways. Each of these teach us about how meaning can be found in the liturgy. Each of these gives us options to weigh when we start considering how meaning should be found in the liturgy. Some provide very interesting insights worth being recovered. Others—really deserve to be forgotten. But in the act of discovering and winnowing, I think we learn a lot about the process as a whole.

Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book Update

Lots of balls in the air at the moment, some with very hard deadlines…

My prayer book spirituality work for Forward Movement has a contract and a due date—October 15th. There’s quite a lot to be done on it in a short space of time. Expect to see a lot more material on this coming out soon.

The next SCLM meeting is next week. Please be praying for us then. After having floated the idea of an alternative vision for Holy Women, Holy Men at the past couple of meetings, Ruth Meyers requested a full-on draft of what such an alternative would look like. That has been completed; I’ll post it for the Commission today and hopefully post excerpts from it here tomorrow.

One of the potential  monkey-wrenches in the deadlines for both the spirituality project and the SCLM material was waiting for the page-proofs for the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book to come back. I got the edited material back to Forward Movement in March. They’ve been doing the publisher thing with it since then. I had been given June 10th as a hopeful date for page proofs, but it looks like things are going to take a little longer; they’re still doing their editing/spell-checking/indexing/etc. So, the page-proofs won’t be out for a bit and therefore publication will likely be in the latter half of the year—but I have high hopes that it’ll be on shelves by the end of the calendar year.

So—while it didn’t impact the SCLM material, there’s a good chance it’ll arrive while I’m trying to finish up the spirituality text. We’ll see; I’ll keep you posted when I know more…

Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part II

This part is coming along slowly… I do see the relationship between intentionality/participation/attentiveness as being three aspects of the same whole and may juggle around the order of these a bit once they’re done. We’ll see…



When we come before the Lord to worship, when we prepare ourselves to once again take the plunge into the unending choruses of praise to God and to the Lamb, it means committing whole hog. If we’re there to praise, then let every part of us that can join in the praise. Check the psalms. Does it really say, “Let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the woods fold their branches over their trunks and just stand there stoically while everyone else is singing as if they’re too cool to join in (perhaps in a slightly ironic way)?”

I didn’t think so. And yet, I see this almost every week at worship… Since I recognize that singing adds a few different things to the mix, let’s begin by talking about the speaking parts, then touch on singing.

During colonial times, there were two people who appeared at the front of the church to make worship happen: the priest and the clerk or reader. If you go into some of our oldest Episcopal churches that still have their original furniture you might see a two-level pulpit: the priest stood in the upper part while the clerk stood in the lower. The priest was, well, to be the priest, and he’d say the “priest” parts. The clerk was a layman, and his job was to lead the speaking parts for the people. On one hand this setup is a benefit—with the clerk there, you know when to say what you needed to say. And, in a time where the congregation had varying degrees of literacy, it was always helpful to have a least one guy you knew could read! On the other hand, it also became entirely too easy to sit back and let the clerk do “his” thing instead of seeing him as the leader for “our” thing. The Victorian liturgical scholar Walter Frere speaks unfavorably of this duet between either the priest and the clerk or—later—the priest and the choir where, in both cases, the congregation sat in as the audience while someone else performed their parts. Frere describes this—quite rightly—as a low-point for liturgy.

Hogarth_Church[A 1736 print by engraver and satirist William Hogarth entitled “The Sleeping Church”]

We’re there for a reason. We have been given a Book of Common Prayer so that we can pray together in common. The fact that the Anglican tradition has always provided access for the whole people to the whole service speaks volumes about what we understand participation to be. When the book says “People” it doesn’t intend a token representative, but the whole body. Thankfully, the clerk phenomenon has not been a big part of Episcopal worship in recent years, but the point still stands—the prayer book tradition is a participatory tradition; the intention has always been that the congregation should be engaged intellectually, spiritually, and verbally in what is going on.

Participation does, at the minimum, three things. First, it’s much easier to engage and remain engaged in the act of worship when we are verbally involved. The act of listening, responding, rolling the words around in our mouths, connects us to what is going on around us. Second, it represents an assent to the content of the words. When we join in, it’s an act of affirming what’s being said—we believe it, or at least have an understanding that this is what the church teaches and that we’re committed to even as we may wrestle with some phrases or aren’t fully feeling others at the time. Third, it both signals and creates a rapport with the people around us. We don’t come to the public worship of the church by ourselves and for our own sake. Public worship is corporate worship in the most literal of senses—we form a body: the Body into whom we were baptized. As we come together, we are separate members of the Body of Christ joining back together, re-forming the body in a simultaneously spiritual and literal sense. When someone stands silent in such a gathering, their actions call into question their relationship to the rest of the body.

Participation in singing as a slightly different story, but the same principles should be kept in mind. Not everyone sings—I understand that. There are different patterns of participation at worship. Some folks are better singers than others. Some are shy. Some don’t read music, or don’t read it well enough to feel comfortable joining in from the very beginning of a song—particularly if it’s a new one. Some guys might think it “unmanly” (and they’d be totally wrong on that count). Some were raised in churches where singing isn’t common or is frowned upon—whether officially or by long-standing custom.

After pointing out the myriad instructions to sing so many parts of the service from the psalms to the prayers to the creeds to the hymns, Victorian scholar John Henry Blunt confidently concluded, “The devotional system of the Prayer Book is, therefore, a singing system; and the Church of England is what the Mediaeval, the Primitive, and the Jewish Churches were, ‘a Singing Church.’” As framed notices in choir rooms across the world will attest, the great early African theologian St. Augustine of Hippo really did say that “To sing is to pray twice” (once with the words, and again with the beauty of the voice raised in song).

The goal should be for the whole congregation to be able to join in song at the congregational singing parts—service music and hymns alike. That means as congregants, we have a responsibility to raise our voices and join them with those around us—even if it’s softly! But we aren’t the only ones who have a say in this situation; the musicians and worship planners can have an impact here as well. Some music—particularly some of the pop-styles of recent years—works better for individual performers than large groups. A wide vocal range from high to low notes, complex rhythms, jumps in pitch are all very hard for the average congregation to sing and to sing well together. The choice of the music can sabotage the intention to participate even if it’s entirely inadvertent on the part of the musicians.

Participation in the service, whether in the sung or the spoken parts, is an important part of aligning yourself with the intention and the purpose of the liturgy. That’s not to say that there aren’t other modes of participation—not all participation is active participation—but vocal participation in conscious consonance with the Body around you is a hallmark of Anglican liturgy at its best.

Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part I

Alright—having done a fair amount of work on saints in advance of the end-of-June SCLM meeting, I’m returning again to my other main writing project: the prayer book spirituality work in process for Forward Movement. (You can find the earlier posts related to this topic by clicking on the Prayer Book Spirituality Project tag.)

This section is taking a bit more time than some of the others, but that’s ok because 1) it’s one of the more important sections and 2) I feel like this is the section that so many current accessible works on the prayer book are missing. Thus, it’s worth doing it right. It might take us several parts to get through it and re-writes are inevitable…

The “Basic Disciplines” section intentionally parallels the “Basic Principles” section because it builds where that one left off. You might like to revisit that one before continuing here.


Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship

The Need for Disciplines

On my more optimistic days, I have faith in the formative power of the liturgy. Much of the work of the liturgy on the soul occurs passively. That is, it’s a matter of trusting the process. We may not feel it working on us, but following the prayer book system, being in the liturgies, participating in the prayers, will have a long-term effect whether we realize it or not. Woody Allen has famously commented that eighty percent of success is simply showing up—and that certainly seems to apply here!

However, at the end of the day, just being there isn’t enough. After all, if it were, then there would be no such thing as bad priests; we could rest secure knowing that anyone who was invested and participated in these patterns would be an ok person, and that we could simply trust the formation. But things aren’t so simple. There are people who live in these liturgical cycles yet who seem not to be transformed and changed by them, who can exhibit the baser tendencies of human nature unaltered by their liturgical practice.

Showing up is important—but it isn’t enough.

We sometimes use the metaphor of a rock in a river to talk about incremental change over time. A rock dropped into running water will be smoothed and polished over years from the passage of the water around it and from rubbing against the rocks around it. And yet—a rock that has sat in a river for a thousand years may be just as dry on the inside as one that has never seen the water. Just because the outside has been changed, doesn’t necessarily mean that the heart of it has been touched.

I don’t want to be a rock: I want to be a sponge. I want to be permeated and saturated by the environment that I’m in. I want my insides to be touched by the years of these experiences as much as my outsides. I don’t want to just experience the cycles of the liturgy, I want to be altered and transformed by them.

If eighty percent of success in the liturgy is just showing up, than the other twenty percent may well be about making it count, about opening up the insides. This is where we get to the disciplines that can make the most of our liturgical practice. These are the long-term habits that help us open our minds and our hearts to what is going on around us, that crack open our shells and enable to waters of life to seep within us and change us throughout. As we discussed in a previous section, it may be helpful to think about these from an active perspective: these are the things that we do to cooperate with God’s transforming grace. Alternatively, they may resonate with you in a more passive construction: these are the things that help us stop resisting God’s embrace and help us relax into the person of God.


The first discipline is intentionality. Think of this as focusing our attention on the big picture. If it’s not enough to simply show up, then we can at least show up holding in our minds the reason why we’re showing up! God is not made greater through our worship of him; God is already greater than that. We do worship God for our own purposes, and we would do well to remind ourselves of what those are and to carry them into worship with us. We don’t simply go to fulfill an obligation, or to gain another bargaining chip with God. Rather, we come because God is worthy of praise, and in the very act of praise and adoration we recall to ourselves and those around us who God is and what God has done for us.

Before we participate in any act of worship—whether alongside hundreds of others or alone and by ourselves—we would do well to stop and fix in our minds what it is that we are about to participate in. We are here to worship God. We are here to enjoy the presence of God, and to participate in the process of communicating with God alongside and in communion with a great company who have praised him through the ages. Beyond that fundamental principle shared by all forms of liturgical worship, the various liturgies have their own purposes. Be aware of what it is you are about to do. Collect to mind the general intention of the service in which you will participate.

Furthermore, worship is part of a pattern of orienting ourselves towards God and aligning our stories, beliefs, and principles with God’s. As we consider the general intentions of the service, we also want to connect these general intentions with what’s going on with us. The liturgies tend to speak in generalities—we thank God for blessings, we lift up concerns. As part of being intentional, as we take a moment to consider the big picture, we should also take a moment to consider the specific intersections between the language of the liturgy and the events of our lives. What are those specific things we are thankful for? What are the actual concerns burdening our hearts and minds?

I’ll talk more about the general intentions of the various services as we discuss them and will clarify just what I mean here as we focus on them in turn. By specific intentions, though, I mean that we may choose to hold in mind a particular aspect of the broader purpose that touches on something going on in our lives at that moment.  For instance, if someone has just passed away, we might choose to participate in a Eucharist holding them in mind, recognizing that—as the Eucharist connects us with the whole communion of saints—we might be thankful for their place in our lives and be comforted knowing that our connection with them through the Eucharist has not ended but that we share the same banqueting table with them. Or, if we have been touched by a particular joy as we approach the Daily Office, we might hold that joy before us as a concrete example of those things for which we praise and thank God.

(More to come as it gets written…)

Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship

Here’s the next installment in the material I’m working on…

The section that will appear after this one is complementary to it and is entitled “Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship.” That one’s only in outline form at the moment so it may be a couple more days before it appears. But here’s this for now:


Basic Principles for Liturgical Worship



Modern Americans absorb the principles of commercial transactions at a young age: If you want something, you have to pay for it; if you pay for something, you’d better get it. As a result, it’s no surprise that many of us start out with a vending-machine model of God. As I child, I remember getting a sense that if I prayed for something, I should get it—if I didn’t God either didn’t like me or he wasn’t being fair… I out grew this, of course, as all do who have prayed for God to give them a pony. Nevertheless, I think many of us still have a vaguely transactional sense of worship. That if we are faithful and diligent in our attendance, God somehow owes us—as if we were building up credit to be used when we get stuck in a jam. Or, on the flip-side, attendance at worship is a bargaining chip to be held over God’s head. (“Do this thing for me and I’ll start going to church/I’ll go to church a lot more/I’ll never miss church.”)

It doesn’t work like that.

Indeed, when we stop and think about it we know that it doesn’t work like that—but that doesn’t stop us from feeling that way sometimes despite our best attempts. When we consider the principles of liturgical worship, it’s helpful to take a quick look at the various ways in which we address God. Different traditions break down the aspects of worship and prayer in different ways, but one of the most common schemes (and the one referenced in the prayer book’s catechism) identifies seven types: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.

I see adoration and praise as inter-related because of what is driving them—nothing but God. Praise is worship directed towards God for no other reason than rejoicing in the person and presence of God. It’s not bribery to get something, it’s flat-out joy in the Lord’s presence. Adoration is one step closer still: it’s relaxing in the direct presence of God.

Thanksgiving is driven by past events. This is when we give thanks for what God has already done for us (and with us, and through us) and for the wonder, majesty, and delight of God’s creation.

Oblation is prayer driven by our response to God and God’s works: at the heart of oblation is offering. Specifically, we offer ourselves to God—as well as our works—to be united with his will and works. I see this as related to Thanksgiving but the next logical step beyond it.

Penitence, intercession and petition are different from the others because they are all asking for something. In penitence, we acknowledge (and bewail) our sins and ask God for forgiveness. In intercession, we ask God for things on behalf of others, recalling individuals, groups, and ultimately all creation to God’s memory—and our own. In petition, we make requests to God based on our own needs.

The liturgical worship of the Book of Common Prayer contains all seven of these elements in different balances at different points. All forms of Christian worship have these seven aspects in different amounts. One of the strengths of liturgical worship is that the balance between these elements is stable.

Within the Eucharist and the Daily Office, the first three—adoration, praise, and thanksgiving—predominate. That’s not to say that the others don’t have a place and don’t appear, but our liturgies foreground the praise of God and rejoicing in God’s presence. The fundamental and primary purpose of liturgical worship is praise and adoration. It’s about celebrating the relationship; it’s about experiencing the vastness of who and what God is. It’s not flattery with an eye to scoring something off the Big Guy at a time to be named later. God does not need our praise; God is not subject to our manipulation.


I’m going to be paradoxical for a moment now… Having said that the primary point of worship is the praise and adoration of God, I’m going to turn that around on us. The praise and adoration of God is and must be our primary purpose in worship—but God doesn’t need it. God is not made greater for our praise of him; God is God perfectly well without us. We are the ones who need to be reminded—we’re the ones who have to have the Gospel held before our eyes lest we forget and forsake it. So, despite God being the fundamental aim of our worship, if we are to speak of “benefit” at all, we do it for our benefit.

As a result, the way that we do worship has to accomplish its aim, but also be edifying to those of us who participate in it. It needs to draw our minds and hearts to God. It needs to facilitate a lively encounter with the Holy One whom we praise. It needs to give us the tools for understanding what it means to be in the midst of holy things, holy people, and the holy presences within holy places. It needs to feed our sense of the sacred so that, once we have returned to more ostensibly secular living, we may spy out the presence of the Holy woven in the warp and weft of the world around us and within us. In worship we are given the signatures, the characteristics, the tastes of God in a deliberate sense so that we are more able to recognize them when and where we least expect them.

The danger of realizing that worship is for us is if—when—edification usurps the purpose and becomes the primary focus. The point when the nave is turned into a lecture hall or when worship becomes an exercise in consciousness-raising is the point where we have lost sight of God. Edification, formation, is an important secondary purpose of worship but, whenever it moves into primacy we move into an idolatrous self-worship where we take the center rather than the Living God.

No less idolatrous, of course, is when the edification is of an aesthetic sort and worship becomes its own end where its aesthetic qualities and effortless performance edge out adoration. Worship too consumed by its own beauty and elegance is no less a worship of ourselves and the works of our own hands than more overt celebrations of the self and our own enlightened opinions. I say this not because I don’t like beautiful and elegant worship—indeed, I say it precisely because I do! Beauty and holiness are essential aspects of worship done well; care, precision, and planning make it what it can be. And yet whenever our focus is turned from God, we have substantially missed the mark because the purpose of the formation has gone awry.

The true formation found in worship consists of orienting the soul towards God and aligning us within God’s vision of reality. In worship, we are turned to God in praise and adoration, and are given to see the rest of creation as fellow worshippers hymning God with their very being. This is the edification that we need. Whenever worship moves towards ostensible edification, it loses its primary focus—God—and, in doing so, loses its power to orient us beyond ourselves in him! Thus, edification is an important secondary aspect of worship, but if ever it threatens to take primary place then its very value is undermined.


Liturgical worship is founded on the principle of repetition. There are patterns and habits that make us who and what we are. The shape of worship shapes our character; the texts of worship pattern our priorities; the ways of relating to one another performed in the liturgy rehearse principles for engagement outside of worship as well. Worship is—literally—habit-forming. And it’s supposed to be.

Modern brain science tells us that an action has to be repeated daily for roughly 40 days for it to become a habit. My martial arts teachers tell me that the Chinese reckon daily practice for 100 days as the small accomplishment, 1,000 days as the middle accomplishment, and 10,000 days as the great accomplishment—and that no one should presume to teach a thing without the middle accomplishment at least (roughly three years of daily practice…) on the grounds that they have not yet achieved sufficient understanding.

Repetition happens in a few different ways in the prayer book system. The first is the repetition of services. Morning and Evening Prayer truly are the bedrock of the system; their daily, weekly, yearly repetition shapes us like nothing else. The Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church become the punctuation of this ongoing rhythm.

The second is the repetition of texts and actions. The same texts and the same body of texts are rehearsed over and over. Some—like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed—are repeated multiple times a day. Some—like certain psalms and canticles—are repeated several times a week. Some—like our Eucharistic Prayers—are repeated at least once a week. The Psalter is run through monthly or in an eight-week cycle; Scripture itself—or at least a fulsome quantity thereof—is covered every year or two (more on these later). As we gather in corporate worship our rituals of greeting, responding, and reconciling with one another are patterns of relating designed to help us see Christ and find the holy in the other.

Repetition teaches in a variety of ways; it’s not just a matter of gaining information or training a skill. One of the most fruitful teachings of repetition comes through exhaustion: in martial arts training, constant repetition of an act or form wears out the muscles—no matter how strong they may be—and forces the body to learn efficiency. Our body learns something in a special way when the muscles are burdened, deaden, and ultimately desensitized by repetition; at a certain point the neuro-muscular motion breaks down and the repetition becomes an act of will—the will guiding and sustaining it as the body finds on its own a minimal efficiency that enables the motion to continue. It’s then that the deepest levels of learning occur. At this point, it’s no longer a matter of being fun or enjoyable or even “good exercise”—it’s passed purely into the realm of discipline.

What are our expectations of our spiritual practices? Do we expect them to be fun or enjoyable or a good spiritual stretch? What happens if we come to them and find them no longer fun? We speak of a discipline of prayer because the repetition of the liturgical round requires discipline. It requires commitment to the concept of repetition even when we don’t feel like we’re getting anything out of it.


But repetition on its own can get a bit boring… Even worse than being boring, repetition without allied aspects and disciplines can become rote and stagnant, allowing the mind and focus to wander and reducing the formative texts and actions to mechanical and thoughtless motions and mumblings. As a result, the liturgical round has principles of variation built into it. Variation—a break from the routine, a deliberate alteration in the pattern—not only keeps our attention and keeps us mindful, but can also break open new vistas into prayers and practices that we thought we already knew.

The seasons of the liturgical year are one of our chief vehicles of variation. As the seasons in their courses highlight different aspects of the Christian Gospel, liturgical texts are required or suppressed; the Gloria disappears in Lent, the Pascha Nostrum appears in Easter. These changes may be slight but subtly alter our experience of worship. Sometimes we don’t notice any effect on us; at other times, they may catalyze a new understanding of God, life, and everything. At the least, the changes through the seasons—whether those be textual or the ornamentation of the worship space or the kinds of music chosen (when there is music)—communicate something of the unique character of the time.

One of the most constant sources of variation is found in the Scripture texts deployed in worship. The psalms and lessons prescribed by the lectionary are just as much a part of the liturgy as the prayers. The lectionaries present Scriptural pieces—stories or prophecies or teachings that combine together to communicate the deep meaning of the season in which they are placed. The changing psalms give us something new in the otherwise stable structure of Morning and Evening Prayer. Variation is the spice of repetition that helps us keep our minds and hearts engaged.

Now—some people need more variation than others. Too, I think some times, places, and cultures tend to need more or less variation than others. Modern Westerners on the whole prefer a higher level of variation than we see in liturgies from other times and places. The prayer book is helpful here in both directions: it offers a variety of ways that variation can be introduced, but also puts controls on just how much can be altered lest the benefits of a balanced repetition be completely lost.


One of the most beautiful images from the Book of Revelation is the image of the cosmic chorus encircling the celestial throne of God and the Lamb in Revelation 4 and 5. Revelation gives us a sense of the whole world oriented in acts of praise in a continuous outpouring in the presence of God. Holding this image in mind as an overarching structure, we gain the sense that—if you really think about it—our worship only appears to begin and end… Rather, we temporarily join our voices into the unending chorus of praise. We slip in and out of that eternal song. Whenever we pray and worship, whether we are in a crowd of thousands, or together with only a few or if we are in our room alone, our prayer and worship is never strictly an individual thing; because of this greater praise, our personal prayer and praise is always corporate because our worship contributes to the whole.

Liturgical worship helps us remember this because we are not just joined in the principle of prayer—we are also united with the whole in its practice. The liturgy gives us a tangible sense of continuity with the rest of the Christian family across both space and time. When we use the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are sharing “common” words with all those in our church. Not only that, we are praying in union with Anglicans across the world. Not only does our prayer join us across space, but it also connects us with the Communion of Saints through time as well. We share practices with all those who have used books of common prayer across the past five hundred years. We share with the prayer of all those who came before that as we bear witness to the prayer and praise of the Western Church stretching back to the time of the apostles. Indeed—language aside—the Eucharist from the seventh century Leonine sacramentary (one of the oldest surviving liturgical books) would seem pretty familiar to anyone used to the Eucharist from our American prayer book dating from 1979.


This great continuity across time leads us to the last of the principles that we’ll discuss—stability. Despite the passage of ages and the myriad cultures it has moved through, the liturgy has provided a coherent and continuous pattern of understanding, communicating, and living the Gospel. Instead, the book as a whole has been prayed over generations and centuries.

The prayer book is an authentic expression of the historic Western liturgy that has nourished literally millions who have come before us. It is an authentic expression of the English devotional experience. The importance of this is not that it’s English, of course, but that it is a rooted, embodied, inherited tradition that has been embraced and passed on by a diverse group over a period of centuries—not just dreamed up by a few people last week. Furthermore, the prayer book is an authentic expression of historic Anglican liturgy that balances reform of Western norms with Scripture and the theological and spiritual practices of the Early Church. That’s actually quite a lot of things going for it—and it’s more things than would be going for most services either you or I would dream up.

Because of this long period of use, because of its proven ability to form Christians, the prayer book system commends itself to our use. Repetition and formation work best when we commit ourselves to a given pattern of practice. The prayer book offers us a stable set of practices capable of sustaining the spirit across decades, through highs and lows, enthusiasms and doldrums.


Behind Liturgical Spirituality

So—continuing the pieces that are contributing to a new work on prayer book spirituality… This piece is logically prior to the last one. I felt the need to remind people about what the heart of this whole exercise is about that then I could reference in later sections.

Two things about this piece… First, it flowed while I was writing it, but I think there are some logic jumps between certain paragraphs/topics where the dots need to be filled in for people who don’t live inside my head. Second, I feel like I’m getting one angle on the topic here but that there are other valuable angles that need to be added but I’m not sure if they belong here or elsewhere. Ah well—here goes:


Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

My wife is, among other things, a coach with our local running club. She’ll have runners come to her and complain that they don’t feel like they’re making much progress. Her first question is “what’s your goal?” Whether it’s maintaining a certain pace for a certain number of miles, setting a new personal record for a given race, or losing a few pounds, there’s got to be a goal. Otherwise the idea of “progress” is a futile one!  Whether they have one or not, her response is inevitably “show me your running log.”  Well—they haven’t filled it out. Or, they have and it shows sporadic workouts scattered across a couple of weeks. Or it may show consistency but no differentiation between types of workouts. With the log in hand, she can ask how their training will help them get to their goal. Once she’s established in their minds a connection between their daily and weekly training and the accomplishment of their longer term goal, she can suggest how consistency and balancing the right kinds of workouts will help them achieve it. The training has to be tailored to the goal.

The practice and metaphor of physical training has been connected with the process of spiritual development since the ancient world. It takes the same kind of discipline and consistency to progress in the spiritual life as it does in physical fitness. Indeed, the technical term for the theory and practice of spiritual development is “ascetical theology” taken from the Greek word askesis that simply means “training.”  Paul taps into the language of physical training (and running specifically!) in 1 Corinthians when he speaks to the Corinthians of his own self-disciplines: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-7).  Paul reminds us that we have to have a goal. Not only that, we have to keep a sense that our training is directly contributing to our attainment of that goal.

There is a disconnect between the way that most people approach spirituality and how they approach a concrete project like building a doghouse or a dollhouse. When you’re working on a project like that, there are concrete tasks that you’re trying to accomplish; there’s a goal to work towards and your success can be measured by progress against that goal. We don’t tend to think of prayer and meditation in that same way; you can’t see it taking shape—the framing coming together, milestones being accomplished like getting the roof on. And yet, just because it cannot be easily measured does not mean that there aren’t steps towards progress. Martin Thornton, the Anglican spiritual writer, reminds us that there is one true test of an effective spirituality practice: does it make me a more loving person?

At the end of the day, this is what we are about. We have been created in the image and likeness of God. At the beginning of our making, before even the first cells of our bones were constructed, God framed us in his own image. A God-shaped pattern lies at the heart of our being. As Scripture and tradition have revealed again and again, God’s own character is rooted in love, justice, mercy, and fidelity. The psalms struggle to use the immensity of creation to describe the character of God: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both man and beast, O Lord” (Ps 36:5-6). These same attributes were woven into our being before the cords of our sinews were knit. Where are they now? As beings created to love and serve God and one another, how in touch are we with this fundamental pattern?

Truthfully, we fall far short of the promise of our pattern. We don’t consistently manifest the characteristics that have been built into us. This is the result of sin. Through our own choices, through the choices of others, through the choices that society makes and heaps upon us, we lose sight of who and what we are. We invest ourselves in stories at odds with God’s story, stories about riches and success and fame where what matters is getting ahead—or perhaps stories about needs and hungers and addictions where what matters is quieting the cravings…until they kick up again.  We invest ourselves in patterns of life that are skewed from the pattern that God has laid down for us, patterns grounded in something other than love and faithfulness.

The point of Christian spirituality, then, is to recall us to ourselves. It is to reconcile us to the God who loves us, who created us in his own image, and who cared enough for our redemption to take frail flesh and demonstrate the patterns of love, mercy and justice in the person of Jesus Christ—patterns that led him through the cross to resurrection. In Jesus, in God’s ultimate act of self-revelation and of self-emptying for our sake, we have been called back; we can get in touch with the “us” that God originally created us to be. Therefore, the true test of a Christian spirituality is whether it helps us accomplish this goal: are we freed to love and to most fully be who God created us to be?

But we can’t stop there, either, I’m afraid… The Christian enterprise isn’t just about us—individually. While God cares deeply about the redemption of each one of us, there’s a much bigger scope in view here. God wills the redemption of all humanity, of all creation. Our spiritual work isn’t just about being the best we can be—it’s about participating in God’s monumental effort to reconcile all creation back to the patterns of love, justice, mercy, and fidelity, back to the goodness that it had once and can have again.

To put it another way, Paul reminds again and again in his letters that we have been baptized into the Body of Christ. He means this in a mystical sense—that we are connected into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—but he means it socially as well—that we are connected into the community of all the others who have been connected into Jesus as well, the Church. But being incorporated into the Body is the beginning of the process, not its end. It’s not enough to be grafted into the Body of Christ if we don’t likewise share in the Mind of Christ which is so famously laid out in the Christ-hymn of Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:5-8). Ephesians reminds us that this is the point of the whole exercise; Christian spirituality isn’t just about you—your spiritual success is tied to everyone else around you and, indeed, that’s the point of the institutional church: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:12-13; 15-16, emphasis added). We’re not on this journey alone; our own spiritual maturity is tied up with how we model and encourage that maturity in others. Any spirituality or spiritual exercise that cuts us off or makes us feel superior to those around us is not being rightly used.

Thus, the goal of Christian spirituality is to bring to whole Body to Christian maturity. We do this by cultivating that maturity in ourselves and modeling it for others and encouraging them in their own path based on the gifts for building up the Body that we’ve been given. Alright—if that’s the goal, then how do we measure our progress towards it? Well, this is a little more subjective. It’s not like running; I can’t see how I’m doing in the same way that I glance down at a running watch to check my pace.

As Thornton suggests, the most reliable guide is an honest appraisal of how we treat those around us. Are we treating the inevitable provocations of daily life with anger and resentment or with patience and compassion? (Well—at least increasing degrees of patience…) When I sit and ponder how my spiritual life is going, one of the best measures I know is to consider how my wife and kids might rate me; am I being a more thoughtful and patient husband? Am I responding to their demands on my time in appropriate ways? And not just them—how would my co-workers answer the same question?

The habits of devotion foster in us the habits of virtue. We are transformed—slowly and with a certain amount of inevitable back-sliding—gradually towards the mind of Christ. As disconnected as devotion and virtue might appear from one another, both the wisdom of the church and our own experience will confirm it. I remember once being angry at my wife over some petty household argument—which I can’t even remember now—and thinking that I couldn’t bear to pray Evening Prayer then because once I had done so, I’d have better perspective, be more centered, and that I would have to acknowledge that she was right!

I also want to offer a word of caution concerning another kind of test. Sometimes we get the sense that the point of spiritual devotions (or even church services and sacraments) is to feel uplifted or inspired. That the correct judge if it “worked” is whether we felt the Spirit moving or if we felt a spiritual high. Now, I’m a firm believer in the presence and the movement of the Spirit. I’ve discerned it in liturgical worship, in free-church worship, in the sacraments, and outside of them as well. And yet I’ve also felt emotional states that seem much like it that passed quickly or were the result of some kind of emotional manipulation. You can’t manipulate the Spirit and you can’t manipulate long-term formation. The point of a solid devotional practice is not momentary surges of emotion; long-term formation and transformation is measured in years and decades. Sometimes good and worthwhile devotional practices will inspire us—and sometimes they may feel like work for long stretches of time.

As we continue to think together about spirituality, I want you to keep this in back of your mind. We’re doing this for a reason. There’s a purpose to all of this. There is a goal. We want to connect back into the God who calls us each by name. We want to align our priorities with his priorities. We want to make our individual stories part of his greater, larger, deeper story. We want to be transformed as he is, so that we might love as he does so that, so graced, we might better understand and express his love for us and for his whole creation.

Prayer Book Thoughts

As is usual, I’ve got a number of projects going on across a variety of burners. One of them is a project for Scott Gunn and the folks at Forward Movement on the prayer book. As a result, I’m doing some writing and thinking and reworking of material that’s appeared in a variety of places. The section I’m working on right now is a preliminary part that wrestles with liturgical spirituality as it applies to liturgical practice.

This is a first draft.

I’ve both written some material here and cobbled in some previously written bits that’s moving towards a whole—but isn’t there yet. As I think through this stuff out loud, though, I welcome your thoughts, comments, and push-back.

The audience here is both laity and clergy, but with an eye more to laity—I’m trying to keep the tone and content on the lighter side. No footnotes.

Let me know what you think, and we’ll see where it goes…


The American 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the official worship resource for the Episcopal Church. On one hand, it stands in the tradition of the English and Scottish Books of Common Prayer that stretches back to the middle of the sixteenth century—all of which partake in the great stream of the Historic Western Liturgy that can be traced back to the Apostolic Age with notable periods of formation in the sixth and eighth centuries. On the other hand, it also participates within the recent ecumenical Liturgical Renewal Movement fostered by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5) that re-energized liturgical scholarship by looking at the fourth century—the earliest period of church history for which we have solid liturgical documentation. So—it’s a book with a very old heritage that has recently been updated with the best modern thinking about what the early church was up to.

Because there are a lot of historical things that can be said about the prayer book and about the services contained in it, many folks who try to teach about the prayer book start from an historical angle. I’m not going to do that. Don’t get me wrong—the history is important if you want to know how these things developed; we will talk about some historical stuff and about how things changed over the years. But neither do we want to confuse the act of describing development with the act of enriching spirituality. The history can help you understand why some material has been put together; but that—on its own—won’t help you use that material to grow in love towards God and neighbor. As a result, I’m going to focus on the prayer book as it is now, and pull in the history as it helps us understand why we pray as we do and how we can do it better!

I want to start with three fundamental statements about the prayer book from which everything else proceeds. First, the prayer book is best understood not as the Sunday service book, or even as a collection of services, but as a complementary system of Christian formation. Second, this system with its interlocking cycles has a coherent spiritual purpose. Third, this system as enshrined in the successive Books of Common Prayer is an essential part of what it means to participate in the Anglican tradition.

The Prayer Book System

When we consider the table of contents of the Book of Common Prayer, we note that—broadly—there are three kinds of services. First, there are those that take us a life-cycle arc from birth to death that are chiefly of a pastoral nature (meaning that there’s a particular event or life-experience that is bringing the priest and the people together at that moment). Thus, there are services that take us from “Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child,” to “Baptism” (infant baptism being typical, if not the norm), to “Confirmation,” to “Marriage,” to “Reconciliation of a Penitent” to “Burial.” Second, there are those services that order our worship on a regular repeating basis. The liturgical round is made up of three components: the liturgical calendar where we reflect upon our central mysteries through the various lenses of the seasons of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in his continuing witness in the lives of the saints, the Daily Office where we yearly immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist where we gather on Holy Days to most perfectly embody the Body of Christ and receive the graces that the sacraments afford. Third, there are the services for ordaining and consecrating the clergy of the church: deacons, priests, and bishops. (Sometimes these are conceptually grouped together and called “the ordinal.”)

Of these three kinds of services, the second (the regular repeating ones) constitute the theological, spiritual, and practical heart of the prayer book. Again, these are the Daily Offices (consisting of Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) and the Eucharist also called Holy Communion. However, they are dispersed through the book in such a way that their importance, their various elements, and their relationship are not easily identified. Grasping the content and nature of these services is the key to understanding the spiritual structure offered by the prayer book.

If the standard by which you measure the services of the church is Sunday morning, you might wonder why they are grouped together in this way. After all—that was one of the big shifts between the current prayer book and the way Sunday was done before it: Morning Prayer used to be the standard Sunday service, now the Eucharist is the standard. It appears that one displaced the other, and functionally that is the case, but when we take a big step backward and get a bigger picture historically, we realize that this is a set of false options.

Indeed, the Sunday morning “either/or” is a relatively recent occurrence historically. The first Anglican prayer books replicated the Sunday morning pattern of services that they inherited from the Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer followed by the Litany followed by the Eucharist. All three services were done one after the other! After the Reformation, the piece that got dropped was the consecration of the Eucharist itself: they would do Morning Prayer, the Litany, and the Holy Communion service through the readings, sermon, creed, and prayers but then would stop. (Sometimes the Eucharist was only consecrated three or four times a year!) It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that Episcopal clergy even had the option of doing either Morning Prayer or Holy Communion. So the “either/or” had classically been a “both/and.”

The heart of the prayer book system is given to us in the first real sentence of the first real section of the prayer book:

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)

Here in this sentence are the three key items that we identified above. The establishment of “the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” is determined by the Calendar; the Holy Eucharist and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alternate as central public services.

Starting with the Calendar, we must begin with the recognition that most human measures for marking time are social constructs. That is, nature gives us a few points upon which we hang our hats. The motion of the sun determines two main things: day and night, and a year broken into four quarters based on our motion around the sun. The motion of the moon provides us with another measure but, as it does not match with the solar cycle, causes more complexity than it solves. Given the sparse directions given by the world around us, the majority of the methods by which we keep time say more about “us” and what we think is important than they do about the nature of time itself.

Like the natural world, the Book of Common Prayer has seasons. However, rather than pointing to agricultural potential or lack thereof, the prayer book constructs time around the person of Jesus in a set of seasons referred to as the Temporal cycle. While the Sanctoral cycle (which celebrates the saints) logically follows subsequent to the Temporal cycle, it is super-imposed upon the year as a succession of static days mostly independent of the seasons. The way that the prayer book orders time, then, is supposed to tell us something about our priorities. Time itself is provided with a Jesus-colored lens.

Now we move to contemplate the Eucharist and Office. The liturgy of the Western Church—especially liturgy that partakes of a monastic spirit—can be described as (among other things) a disciplined and bounded encounter with Scripture. That is, under the early medieval monastic ideal—lifted up as a worthy pattern in the preface to the first prayer book in 1549—the Scriptures were read yearly in the Office; then the Mass could cherry-pick small sections of text (known as “pericopes”) at its leisure, firm in the knowledge that—thanks to the constant repetition of Scripture—the congregation would immediately recognize the proper text and recall its literary context.

Thus, in the Office the Psalms, the garden from which the fruit of all the other Scriptures may be plucked (as Athanasius put it),  would be repeated regularly (weekly, monthly or 8-weekly), and the bulk of Scripture read through every year or two depending on how many lessons you use at Evening Prayer.  This is fundamentally catechectical—it teaches. This pattern grounds us in the stories, the laws, the histories, and the laments of the people of God that illuminate and inform our own experiences.  Too, the canticles serve an important function. They aren’t just praise-bits stuck in with the “real” material, rather they are lenses and orienting devices to help us interpret the readings—especially the set traditional canticles.

The Eucharist, then, as it rolls through the seasons, offers us not only a weekly (or more frequent) experience of the grace of God but allows us to hear and experience the Good News in several major modes: expectation, joy, enlightenment, penitence, celebration—the principle Christian affections. If the Office is primarily catechetical, the Eucharist is primarily mystagogical. That is, it leads us by experiences of grace into the mystery of God and the relationship that God is calling us into with him and with the entire created order through him.

The final aspect of the Prayer Book system is that the Calendar, the Office, and the Eucharist all form us for a continual practice of personal prayer; while the prayer book gives us the words for our common prayer, these words likewise offer models for how we converse with God in our private and passing moments.

The Spirituality of the Prayer Book System

The purpose of any spiritual system is to bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God—to create a family of mature Christians. Through their increasing awareness of who God is, how much God loves them and all of creation, they translate that love they have been shown into concrete acts of love and mercy in the world around them. There are several different strategies that different spiritual systems use to accomplish this. One of the classic ones—referred to in St Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)—is the recollection of God. The idea here is that if we can continually keep in mind the goodness of God, the constant presence of God, and an awareness of the mighty works of God on behalf of us and others, that we will more naturally and more completely act in accordance with God’s will and ways. Continual recollection is nearly impossible, but there are methods to help us in this habit.

A primary goal of liturgical spirituality is to create a disciplined recollection of God. Thus, if we specifically pause at central points of time—morning and evening; noon and night; Sundays and other Holy Days—to reorient ourselves towards God and the mighty acts of God, whether recalled to us through the Scriptures or experienced by us through direct encounters with the sacraments, then this discipline will lead us towards a habitual recollection of God.

In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.

While this sounds all awfully churchy it’s actually not. Indeed, this liturgical structure was mediated into the prayer-book tradition by a spiritual devotion for the laity. The idea of the Daily Office was originally a regular communal practice. By the end of the 4th century, it was transitioning into a monastic practice and began to be less of a feature in lay life. By the medieval period, it was expected that the laity would be at Matins (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer)—as well as Mass—on Holy Days. With the rise of lay literacy in the High Medieval period, though, came the Books of Hours. These were the central devotional books used by laypeople (men and women alike) and they contained a cycle of offices that followed the basic structure of the monastic and priestly Office books but with fewer psalms and greatly reduced seasonal variations. On the eve of and during the English Reformation, the Latin Books of Hours and the English-language prymers held an important place in the devotional lives of upper- and middle-class lay Christians who prayed these several Offices on a daily basis. The Daily Offices that appeared in our initial 1549 Book of Common Prayer—and in every book subsequent—are equally derived from these lay prymers as well as the Sarum breviaries.

The Prayer Book System and the Anglican Tradition

This pattern of prayer—the Daily Offices prayed twice a day and the Eucharist at least weekly if not more frequent—is the common heritage of the Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches have it; the Roman Catholic Church has it; the Anglican Churches have it. All of these churches understand that not everybody is going to be doing all of this praying all of the time—and that’s ok. However, in the Eastern and in the Roman Catholic traditions, the Daily Offices (the Divine Praises and Liturgy of the Hours respectively) are practically the province of clergy and monastics. Lay people, for the most part, are not aware of them or encouraged to do them. Indeed, Roman Catholic spirituality since the time of the Reformation has emphasized daily Eucharist to the point that any other kind of daily service would be considered odd! Of the churches that have retained it, the Anglican churches are the only ones that have consistently insisted by means of the prayer book that clergy and laity alike should be participating in this cycle of worship, formation, and transformation on a daily basis. I say “by means of the prayer book” advisedly… Our books insist on it, but that doesn’t mean that the people have always practiced it and that the clergy have always taught it!

However, many of the reform movements within Anglicanism have been anchored by a call back to the prayer book system. We see it with the Caroline Divines; we see it with the Oxford Movement; we see it with the Victorian English Revival. We even see it with the life-long Anglicans John and Charles Wesley—the prayer book system is part of the “method” that earned the (originally) derisive name of “Methodism!”

Can you be an Anglican without engaging, practicing, knowing, or caring about the prayer book system? Of course—millions of Anglicans do it every day! But can you be an Anglican who claims to be engaged in the art and practice of spirituality without grappling with this system? Well—as the prayer book represents one of our central threads of continuity through the ages and across the world, it’d be hard to make a case for that. This is the homeland of Anglican spirituality. Even when Anglican churches and their flocks have not been diligent in inhabiting the system, there is value in realizing that it exists, seeing it as a devotional ideal, and understanding our own efforts with the larger picture of the Church’s spiritual work.