Theological Context of a Revised Prayer Book

It’s in my nature, I suppose, that when I address a topic, I want to back up and see the context. In order to address the issues that I see coming and to respond properly to the issues raised by Ruth Meyers in her presentation at CDSP, we have to have a sense of the culture in which, for which, and to which a revised prayer book and a church shaped by it will serve.

This is the first American prayer book that will be revised for a self-conciously post-Constantinian Church. That is, I think most Episcopalians are clear on the fact that we cannot and should not rely on general “cultural forces” to compell people into our churches and to align themselves with our vision of the faith. American society doesn’t work that way any more.

What I don’t think many Episcopalians are clear on is the spiritual shape of the culture that we are working with.  It is my belief that orthdox/Nicene Christianity is in the minority even among those Americans who identify as Christians. Of course, this is not the first time this has been the case, and likely not the last. Let’s recall—in the early days there were multiple versions of Christianity being proclaimed, only some of which had the intention of being apostolic Christianity. That is, teaching the faith as it was taught by the apostles and as presented in the writings that would become the books of the New Testament. Looking back, we can see Irenaeus and others like him as key figures who helped define the contours of apostolic Christianity over and against other forms that held Jesus as important but were not in organic continuity with his teaching and that of his apostles.

With the rise of Marcion, I have read that at various places and times in the 2nd/3rd century there were more Marcionites than orthodox Christians.

Certainly in the fourth and fifth centuries orthodox Christians were a global minority versus Arian Christians. Not only did the empire go back and forth between orthodoxy and Arianism, but many of the European tribal groups were Arian. (And, recall, this was an important political choice as much as it was a theological one. Claiming Arianism enabled the tribal groups to remain outside the control of the orthodox bishops who were aligned with the empire’s ideology and interests.)

There are some these days (I think of Elaine Pagels and others) who underscore the diversity of early Christianity to remind us that the stream of apostolic Christianity that became orthodox Christianity and that grounded the Undivided Church was one among many in order to suggest that some of the others are perfectly valid ways of being Christian and that orthodoxy became orthodox because the mean patriarchal Fathers constructed it that way so they could oppress everybody else.  I don’t agree with that perspective, and that’s not why I’m bringing up the diversities of Christianities in the past. My point is simply that claiming Christianity does not automatically ensure orthodoxy.

In fact, I’d argue that orthodox Christianity is once again a minority among Americans generally and even among Americans who claim Christianity. The majority faith is Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  Again, the major tenets of MTD are:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Furthermore, I think that some of the classic Christian heresies are currently functioning in such a way to blur the edges from Christian orthodoxy into MTD.

Again, we need to recall why heresy is an issue. I think sometimes there’s a sense that there’s a “patriarchal dogmtic thought police” who wants to make sure that you’re under their thumb and you’re only thinking what they want you to think. Throw that notion out—it’s ridiculous. Heresy is a problem not because you’re thinking illict thoughts, but because of its impact on how the faith is actively lived out. When we misconstrue the nature of the Godhead and how that Godhead relates to creation (and, obviously, us as beings within the creation), that misconstrual leads us to live out how we love God and love our neighbors in ways that do not match the intentions revealed by Jesus to his Church and therefore the apostolic faith. As a quick for-instance, if you don’t believe that God-the-Father-of-Jesus was the creator of the material world, then you will act and react to the material world as if you either 1) need to shun it as a spiritual contaminant or else 2) you can do anything you please with it or to it with no spiritual consequnces. In point of fact, this is what gnostics believed, and how they acted. Both paths are distortions of the Gospel. This is why heresy is bad: it leads us into lived distortions of our call to love God and love our neighbors.

The resurgent heresies that I’ve seen in and around our churches are these:

  • Neo-Arianism: Recently popularized by some factions within the “Historical Jesus” movement, neo-Ariansim revives the notion that Jesus was a truly awesome human and a wise spiritual teacher and someone who participated in “God-consciousness” but wasn’t actually God. There’s also an anti-ecclesial/anti-Pauline form of this belief that suggests that Jesus wasn’t God and never thought that he was, and either the apostles or Paul got him wrong (intentionally or not) and claimed divinity for him that he would not have claimed for himself. (or, naturally, that no one thought he was divine until Constantine told them to think that…) This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD in a couple of way. First, it helps recover Jesus as a nice guy and a teacher of niceness (pt 2); anything mean or that challenges the way we live that he said can therefore be ascribed to the Paul/the Early Church and their attempts at thought-control (pt 3). Second, it helps keep God out of contact with our everyday world and keeps him sealed off in his heavenly sphere so that we don’t have to worry about God interacting in and with us (pt 4). Third, it reduces the uniqueness of Jesus; he was a wise prophet and an enlightened guy. We don’t need faith in Jesus, just the faith of Jesus. He simply teaches us how to be good so we can go to heaven too (pt 5).
  • Neo-Pelagianism: These days this is usually connected with an elevated view of creation. Basically, the modern presentation is that God created humanity good, and generally we are pretty good, and we certainly seem to ourselves to be just fine, therefore a lot of the Church’s historic language about sin can be classified as a major over-reaction which is unnecessary. The notion of Original Sin is frequently dispensed with and the concept of personal sin is downplayed; if sin appears it is usually identified as social sin. A common example is the way that corporations destroy the environment.  Note that this presentation soft-pedals the really hard edge of classical Pelagianism that remains its natural consequence if you play the logic out. Remember—the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin is the much more pastoral of the two! Since Pelagianism insists that human will is not fallen, then we can and must make our own moral choices and correctly follow through on them. If we do evil, it is because we had the capacity to both choose and enact the good but deliberately failed to do so. Under the concept of Origianl Sin, if we screw up it’s because that’s normal, not because (as in the Pelagian scheme) we could have done otherwise but didn’t. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by obscuring the nature and prevelance of sin (pt 3). Furthermore, if the role and influence of sin is diminished, the need for a Redeemer is concomitantly diminished; we need a Creator, yes, but a Redeemer—not so much (pt 1)…
  • Neo-Marcionism: Marcion was a gnostic who taught that the Creator spoken of in the Old Testament as the God of Israel was a lesser being who imprisoned souls and soul-stuff within material reality. Jesus came to save us from creation and material reality, and taught us of his Father who was all love who was different from the lesser, evil, Creator active in the OT. The modern form is the general rather nebulous notion that the God of the Old Testament is the mean god who does mean things; the God of Jesus is the good god who loves you and thinks you’re great. Whereas the first two heresies are presently taught by thinkers who write books that are discussed in Adult Forums and such, this one tends to be more cultural than presented as an actual argument. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by denying the continuity between God the Creator and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who was intimately related with human life in its particularity (pt 1, 4), and downplaying the notion that God has some very clear and specific commandments on the ordering of human life an relationships (pt 2).
  • Quasi-Modalistic Tritheism: Modalism is the error where there is one God who operates in three different more-or-less distinct modes; tritheism gives us three different gods. Tritheism has always been an issue with Christians; while there have been a few outbreaks of full-on Modalism in Christian history (I’m thinking of the Fransican Spiritualists here), our greater tendency is to lapse into a functional belief in three different Gods who hang out together a lot. Trinitarianism lapses into the currently fashionable form of tritheism when three specific spheres of the Godhead’s activity become rigidly circumscribed. That is, when we take three legitimate functions performed by the Godhead as a whole and by all three Persons of the Trinity in various ways, and we make them absolute roles, implying an exclusivity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or Sustainer if there’s no sin to be sanctified from…). I don’t think that this heresy ties in as neatly with MTD as the others; this tends to be an issue of linguistics. People who are uncomfortable with the traditional language or who find the classic Trinitarian formula too patriarchal/male-dominated make this move as an acceptable substitute. But—unless very careful catechism is employed to reinforce that all three Persons have, do, and will continue to employ all three functions and that these functions are only part of the Godhead’s full portfolio—tritheism is almost inevitable. I do think this makes us conceive of God and the Godhead only within the context of these three specific activities which does result in making God and the action of God more removed from daily life (pt 4).

So—this is my perception of the early 21st century context of American Christianity. This is the context in which a revised prayer book will be received. The next step, then, is to consider how this context will affect how revisions are carried out.


11 thoughts on “Theological Context of a Revised Prayer Book

  1. Barbara S.

    Thanks for this, Derek; it’s very helpful. (Also quite funny; I laughed out loud in several places.)

    It will really be too bad if we don’t continue to offer the orthodox Christian faith in TEC; I mean, Anglicanism is unique in that it teaches this faith without beating people over the head with it.

    I really like your point about Pelagius v. Augustine, too! I think this bears much repeating, because IMO here’s another place we’ve ceded way too much to modern Protestantism. James Alison put it this way ( “In the world of my formation [as a British evangelical], being good was obligatory and boring. And sinning, being bad, was a terrible letting down of the side… As a Catholic I had to learn that sin is boringly normal, and that what is exciting is being pulled into learning new things, called virtues, which are ways in which a goodness which is not ours becomes connatural with us, and that this is something of an adventure.”

    And I completely agree with your point about catechesis. Perhaps it’s time to end our obsession with “liturgy” for its own sake, and remember what “liturgy” is actually for. I know I sound like a broken record on this topic, but the new Catholic Catechism is a treasure in this regard; I really do think we have to get going on something like this, if only on an unofficial basis. We need for TEC theologians to write in-depth on the points contained in our little Catechism, which I’m sorry to say doesn’t teach anybody much of anything. I certainly don’t go there when I have questions about things – but I HAVE gone, and often, to the Catholic Catechism for a deeper understanding of the faith itself.

    People used to know all this stuff, and the church made sense because of it. Catholics in particular used to be very knowledgeable about all of this because they were thoroughly catechized as children; they put the rest of us to shame, in fact. I don’t see this even among Catholics now – and surprisingly, this seems to have changed only over the last generation, as far as I can see.

    MTD is the natural result of this lack of background and depth, IMO.

    Anyway, thanks for a good article!

  2. Barbara S.

    (Now that I think of it: maybe Prayer Book Revision could concentrate primarily on the Catechism….)

  3. Alan Barthel

    Oh, the political machinations of the male dominated church go back almost to the beginning, and the church has been adrift ever since getting bogged down in dogma. Perhaps the prayer book revisions should concentrate primarily the formation of the faithful who actually do the work of ministry in the world.

  4. Juan Oliver

    Excellent summary of what ails us (it’s not the low numbers!). I wonder if the cause underlying all this heresy is that the dogmatic vocabulary traditionally used does not communicate. Might we parhaps find a new way of translating orthodox statements? I see no reason why we cannot sound contemporary and still be orthodox!

  5. Pingback: Why The Filioque Doesn’t Suck, A Respectful Response. | thebrokechurchman

  6. Daniel R.

    This is precisely, I believe, why we do NOT need a new Prayer Book. I worry and fear for the future of Christianity. You hit the nail on the head about the nature of modern Christianity.

  7. Karen Dura

    I agree with Daniel R. “Lex orandi, lex credendi” At this time a new prayer book would be an expense TEC cannot afford, both in terms of money and in divisiveness. I had hoped that the 1979 prayer book could be retained and then supplementary materials could be available to address additional needs.

  8. Christopher

    Derek, I want to say Yes And…as I wrote on my page:

    I’m reading a lot of pieces lately in response to BCP revision. Yours. That at Covenant. I find myself of mixed agreement and disagreement.

    MTD is too easy as a dismissal for a complexity of phenomena that are not all the same. And even in supposed pure form is the child of Christianity. Meaning there is truth in MTD if not the whole truth. And meaning that Christians need to take responsibility for not inspiring a greater vision related to the real life concerns or ordinary people.

    Issues of destruction of creation in Modern fashion pre-date MTD and have partial roots in strands of Christian tradition that while claiming orthodoxy are at odds with the Incarnation by their hatred of desiring matter rather than concerned for ordering desiring matter to Divine desire as revealed and communicated in the Incarnation. These strands collude with a reduction of creation to resources that is ground of our economy. Docetic tendencies are a constant specter in Christianity that often have claimed orthodoxy and received applause in the guise of ascesis and are ineffective response to an economy that reduces rather than raises creation within the Eternal Word. If matter is a problem, using it up is not an issue. And often such strands have misread harsh ascesis of other ages and contexts, harsh ascesis that was understood as orientation to harmony with God, humans, and all creatures in their own contexts and often allied with parochial and domestic life.

    The paschal mystery, that is redemption, is not separable from the mystery of creation as FD Maurice powerfully recovered for us. The opening of John reminds us of their unity in the Word as does the Colossians hymn. The awe of experiencing creation is related to the awe of the Incarnation. As Maurice also reminds us in keeping with Patristics, the fundamental distinction is created and uncreated. And drawing especially on Luther that the Eternal Word, the Second Person, the Creator–yes as much as the Father and the Spirit, becomes a creature. To emphasize this as center and circumference of creation-loving, ecological prayer is to place the Life of the Trinity at the heart of creation, the same Life revealed and communicated in the Incarnation.

    The Ecumenical Creed defends desiring matter because it defends the Incarnation where the Incarnation is not mere instrument of redemption but rather redemption flows forth by way of the Eternal Word becoming one of us out of desire for us and the whole of existence, a desire which reveals the heart of the Father.

    Our common prayer need not oppose any and all new poetic litururgical compositions that deepen insights and awe and therefore worship centered in the Incarnation that emphasize both creation and redemption and that broaden and deepen our iconographic and sacramental vision of the universe.

    Neither does that mean we need to throw out our current canon of prayers. They are catholic with a cruciform emphasis that hints at breaking open a charged world while refusing to ignore or make light of suffering or sin. Nor does that mean that our current canon of prayers is the definitive finality of catholic expression. Our age and context and circumstances may require the stretching of our vision of wholeness.

  9. Georges

    Dear Derek,

    I read your post several times yesterday and today, and I agree a lot with you (if I had the time, I would translate it into French and put that translation on my blog.)

    This is why I earnestly believe that we need, more than ever, the liturgical texts of the centuries past. Take it so, for example: we have inherited of some 80 anaphoras; why should we compose new ones, according to the whims of some laborants, whane we have a good treasure?

  10. John H.

    This is an excellent post.

    If I could throw some gas on the fire, I’d like to propose what is possibly the real end of Christianity in the West. Put simply, very few people believe in the bodily resurrection of a dead Jesus Christ. They just don’t and won’t accept such a silly story. Plenty of Christians offer their “understanding” of this event, which is presumably the very foundation of the Christian faith; but only a very low percentage of people in Western countries would say outright that a completely dead Jesus came back to life.

    Would a majority of Episcopalians actually answer “yes” to that question if you asked them in confidence? Would a majority of Catholics in this country? So what do you do with that?

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