The Work of Prayer Book Liturgies

Sometime around the end of this year or the beginning of next year, Forward Movement will be publishing my next book, this one a work on the spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer. Regular readers already know about it—and have read most of it—because when I was writing it back in 2013 or so I posted much of it here for thoughts and critiques.

One of the key decisions I made in writing that book was that it wasn’t enough to just talk about the Book of Common Prayer. These days, you can’t start there. I decided, instead, to back up a bit: conceptually, not even historically as some people might expect me to do (and as many other prayer book intros tend to do). Rather, I begin by talking about what constitutes a liturguical spirituality.

Why have a liturgy?

What does it matter that we have a liturgy?

What are the principles that govern or at least direct liturgy and churches that follow them?

What is the spiritual work that a liturgy is trying to accomplish?

If we’re going to be thinking about prayer book revision, then I think we need to engage some of these questions head-on to make sure that what we are doing is in conformity with our basic principles. This is too important of a piece of the puzzle to just assume.

When I sat down and hashed this out for the book, I chose to focus on six basic principles for liturgical worship:

  •  Adoration
  • Formation
  • Repetition
  • Variation
  • Continuity
  • Stability

The rough draft of that section section appears here.

I want to pick out a few things in particular here.

First is the transition from “Adoration” into “Formation”:

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 formational 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—formation 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 formation 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.

In my last post, a number of folks started jumping to conclusions about what I was trying to say and where I was going based on what they found there. Don’t do that yet… Trust me—I’ll get there!  That having been said, I think that this principle here, edification, is going to be one of the places where the success of the revision process stands or falls. We must have fundamental agreement that our worship is first and foremost speech to God and judge anything proposed on that level first before considering how a proposed item shapes, stretches, or molds the mind of the gathered assembly.  If we produce liturgies where the elements of consciousness-raising and self-congratulations at our own enlightment overtake the worship of God, our efforts will (and should) fail.

Another piece that I want to draw attention to among these principles is the necessary balance between repetition and variation. We repeat stuff in our liturgies. There are some things that stay the same all the time. This isn’t because it hasn’t occured to us that we could use something else instead—we decided to do it that way.

Recall, the Anglican churches survived just fine for hundreds of years with only one Eucharistic prayer text per book. With the 1979 BCP, the Episcopal Church got a whole bunch of options: Rite I with two different prayers, Rite II with four different prayers, the Communion under Special Circumstances, and the Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist for irregular situations (informally referred to by some as “Rite III”) with two different forms to be included in improvisational prayers. Enriching Our Worship introduced another three prayers.

If both repetition and variation are important—and I do believe they both are—I think we want to be attentive to the amount of variation provided or recommended lest we lose sight of the purposes of having a set and established liturgy.

I am thinking through a third post where I intend to ask some pointed questions and make some recommendations about how I would like to see the revision planning process move in. The point here was, again, to draw attention to context. If we intend to do a “comprehensive” revision, then we need to recall our first principles and make sure that the work of revision operates in continuity with those principles.

2 Replies to “The Work of Prayer Book Liturgies”

  1. Just simply to record my gratitude for the work done on the Anglican Gradual & Sacramentary. I’ve only just discovered St Bede blogs. So I am leaving a “reply” so that I will be notified of new posts (& commenbts). Thank you, Derek, I really don’t know how you do it. john+

Comments are closed.