Not Quite A Manifesto

This isn’t quite a manifesto—but I get the feeling that it’s headed in that direction…

As I look around at the Episcopal Church, tune in to the chattering at the various levels, I’m feeling like we’re floating a bit. There are some key pieces of who we are that have been soft-pedaled into virtual non-existence.

It’s time for us to do a lot more writing and a lot more talking about core spirituality. For me, “spirituality” means practices that nurture our relationship with God (and with one another through our connection to God) and cultivate a direct experience of God and God’s relationship to the created order. By “core” I mean practices that have a direct and intrinsic relationship to the Anglican expression of Christianity. It doesn’t mean they have to be uniquely Anglican, but it does mean that it should have a deep and abiding connection with what makes us distinctive.

We are a prayer book people. And yet the techniques, strategies, and methods for getting the most spiritual value out of our prayer books have been neglected for quite some time. I honestly don’t recall the last time I heard a good Christian Ed (or other) presentation on the prayer book that dug into the spiritual fruit of the prayer book and how to get at it. In fact, most of the presentations I’ve heard—even from clergy who ought to know better—is about the historical development of the liturgy and how that had shaped what we have now. History is interesting (at least to me) but that’s not what people are hungry for! I believe that what the church needs to hear is how to access the spiritual riches of the Scriptures and the prayer book. In order for that to happen we need to start thinking about it and talking about it—and doing it, of course.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through the Myroure of Oure Ladye, a part of the Middle English devotional literature connected to Langforde’s meditations and the anchorite traditions that sought to teach Latin-less lay women the use, meaning, and value of the Sarum liturgies: Mass, Office, and Prymer. These, then, are the precursors to understanding the environment that produced the works of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and the others. The Myroure not only offers translations, but devotes chapters to what kinds of edification might be found in devotional books and how to get at it, what sort of attitudes are necessary to get the most out of reciting the Offices, practical tips on keeping focused and so on. In short, it lays out for its time, place, and understanding of spirituality, how to get at the meat of the Mass and Office.

Fast-forward to the Victorian era. As ceremonial and a higher view of the liturgy were being re-introduced into Church of England services, a literature arose to explain and champion the spirituality inherent within it. It’s hard to take a dip into the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ without hitting material borrowed from the Myroure. Likewise, I find it interesting that one of the most formative commentaries on the BCP of the period—one still well received today—was written by John Henry Blunt . . . who in 1873 edited the text of the Myroure for the Early English Text Society.

What am I suggesting, then? That the Myroure of Oure Ladye is the fix for the Episcopal Church? Certainly not! Neither are Blunt nor Frere nor Dearmer or others who followed in that line.

No—we need our own books. We need our own thinkers. We need our own spiritualities grounded in our own liturgies that teach us strategies and techniques for what the Myroure did for the Sarum Office of the BVM and Blunt did for the English 1662 BCP. By all means the Myroure and the Ancrene Wisse and Blunt and the rest need to be conversation partners. Just because they don’t fit our tires doesn’t mean we need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the reasons why the Myroure and the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ don’t work any more is that their way of understanding the liturgy was thoroughly repudiated by Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal Movement.  What the Myroure and RRW understood to be the point was seen by the Liturgical Renewal Movement as precisely the accretions from which the liturgy needed to be cleansed. Taking as normative the practical level of ritual and ceremonial motion, the sometimes overly spiritualized explanations of the Myroure were jetissoned in favor of the practical purpose and the ideal was described as “noble simplicity.”

An academic generation or more beyond the Liturgical Renewal Movement, we must take stock again. If the last fifty years of biblical scholarship have taught us only one thing it’s that the idea of a single objectively “correct” meaning of any given passage is a deeply flawed concept.  Liturgy is no different in this respect. Our attempts to make meaning from and with the liturgy are interpretive acts; we deal in false dichotomies when we force a choice between a spiritual and a practical interpretation. A biblical text can have an historical interpretation, a literary interpretation, a theological interpretation, a moral interpretation, and a wide variety of reader-response interpretations. Typically, one or two of these will take precedence over the others based on the purpose of the interpretive act; the others will remain in the background, offering amplification and/or critique to the dominant interpretation. Liturgical interpretations need to function in the same way. Discussions that suggest that liturgical acts have one meaning (often couched as “the real meaning”) are falling into the modern objectivist interpretive paradigm that sought to impose a single meaning on a single text.

Bottom line—it’s time to go back. It’s time to re-enact Matthew 13:52 and re-examine our old treasure to see how it can be re-purposed for our new environment.

We’re a church, folks. This core spirituality stuff ought to be right in our wheelhouse. The fact that it’s not, the fact that many clergy are at a loss for explaining our liturgies and their implications to our people is a clear sign that we’ve lost focus of what ought to be fundamental.

A network, a forum, a site—something like that is essential to provide a space to think through these issues and to provide a place for people to ask questions and receive answers (or better questions…). I’d rather see something arise organically than try to force it into existence. What are your thoughts?

22 thoughts on “Not Quite A Manifesto

  1. Fr. Aaron Orear

    Mr. Olsen,
    My thought is that if we need someone to write a clear, engaging, lively spirituality of the modern liturgy, a primer that honours our heritage as well as our ongoing life, then you ought to be the someone. Having twice heard you speak and having read a fair chunk of this blog, I can’t think of anyone else in my own experience quite so well qualified. Your credentials are impeccable – see also the first sentence of “About Derek Olsen,” and then try to describe a better candidate. Beyond that, you’re too young to be caught up in the old battles, too old to be caught up in new tribalism, too clever to be mislead down either path and too modest to let your cleverness get in the way of your subject. If you can find time amongst your many other pursuits, I think this one might just bring them all to bear (all except the cats, perhaps) on one very beneficial project. This is partly my own desire to read and promote what you’d write, and partly me recommending my own discipline of not complaining about anything that I’m not prepared to help fix.

  2. mcdoc

    Dear Derek,

    Certainly you have put your finger onto a crucial weakness in our own Church, and I think other Churches.

    Related to your earlier post SBNR, there many are the seeking souls that wander far and wide, forsaking Anglicanism, catholicism, even Christianity, who then take up Eastern Religion, even so far as the rigorous practices, often including dietary restrictions, including vegetarianism. I find it very interesting that many of these same souls have never pursued, much less even know of the rich and venerable disciplines of the Church, e.g., the Divine Office, lectio divina, contemplative methods, etc.

    I wonder if perhaps for many the treasure that they seek lay buried in the cellar at home the whole time.

    Thank you

  3. bls

    Just downloaded the Myroure and Ritual Reason Why in .mobi. Thanks for the mentions! – never heard of ’em before.

    I’m kind of hanging out on the very, very edge of the church these days – can’t seem to find a space that helps me anymore – but am, always, looking for interesting reading material. Would be glad to help set up a website if you need it for your network, forum, or site. (Have been writing Drupal modules lately! So the sky’s the limit….)

    Was just reading James Alison again today, who talks about:

    ….some dimensions of the strange privilege which consists in being a Catholic theologian today. Dimensions which are not sufficiently tied together yet, but which have in common, I hope, the intuition that something very interesting is being birthed in our midst, after somewhat of a glacial period for our discipline. A period in which our work tools were not up to the required theological task. Curiously, it seems to me that what some people call “late modernity” with its post-modern nihilism, its post-secular reason, combined, at least in the English-speaking world with the strident populist atheism of a Dawkins or a Hitchens, exactly because it obliges us to look for more adequate tools for our labour, at the same time sharpens our intelligence for tasks which are much more our own, and makes much more agile our ability to focus on our properly theological mission.

    I think that’s got some relevance here, too, don’t you?

  4. Fr. Sean

    I would be rather inclined to agree. Please consider the proposal prayerfully.

  5. Derek Olsen

    Thank you for your kind words! I do plan on doing some work on this—but a group of thoughtful voices working independently around the same goal can achieve more than just a single one.

  6. Jonathan

    I’d certainly be happy to contribute to that project, although I’ve generally thought more about getting spiritual value out of life outside the Mass and recitation of the Office. You’re thoughts are probably much more developed than mine, however.

    The one piece I can contribute at the moment is that, on one level, crossing oneself, during the liturgy or in life more generally, is a way to appropriate a blessing. In the liturgy the blessing is frequently spoken, but it isn’t always and doesn’t have to be in order to be real.

  7. mcdoc

    Dear Jonathan,

    I wonder what your thoughts are on a mechanism of appropriation of blessing by crossing oneself? I am an RC refugee to TEC, and I will cross myself at the drop of a liturgical hat, if you will. Here in Boston, land of Puritan-dissenter heritage and 2 historical Anglo-Catholic parishes, I attend a broad-church parish with a subdeacon and “2nd Chalice” assisting the presider à la Sarum use, if you squint, with the congregation about 1/3 crossers and 2/3 non-crossers, mostly I think indicative of religious origins.

    When I cross myself, it seems more memento mori, and recollection that I am not my own, not causing anything to be, not even causing my heart to beat, awaken from sleep, think, etc., in need of salvation and hoping to become some day among the countless in the “cloud of witnesses.” I think I have eschewed any sense of entitlement or systemic, supernatural control in so doing. In other words, I do it to keep myself grounded, humble and connected, rather than to get anything. Is that a meaningful distinction to you?


  8. mcdoc

    Dear Derek,

    I intuit that you have a vision of structure, function, goals and objectives. I find that organicity often awaits organizing principles that beckon attraction and adherence.


  9. JD Ballard

    Bring it on! I’d love to see a primer from your hand.

    Along those lines, can you help me understand the season of Rogation?


  10. Jonathan

    I don’t know that I’d use the word mechanism in connection with this. My thought is mostly grounded in the times I cross myself, like when, in Eucharistic Prayer A, the priest says “sanctify us also…” or in the creed at “the resurrection of the body”. It certainly isn’t a matter of taking control, more like physically reminding myself of the blessings I have and will receive. Or perhaps a sort of non-verbal amen to what came just before in the liturgy.

    Of course, your thought is good too, and might work better for most people.

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  13. James Morgan

    Just came across this post, although I’ve perused your blog before. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian (converted from Anglicanism as it was back in the ’50s) I am used to crossing myself many times a day. It is a useful reminder that I must carry my own cross(es) in the same spirit as the Lord carried His. What’s to debate on that? I wish you all well as you go on your ways.

    Rdr. James Morgan

  14. James Morgan

    PS: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life! Alleluia!

    Rdr. James

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  16. mkivel

    I appreciate your comments – I came to Christ (and the Episcopal Church) having been an observant Jew and having taught siddur (the Jewish prayer book) for many years in many synagogues. In many respects the SIddur performs the same function for an Observant Jew that the BCP provides an Observant Episcopalian/Anglican.

    From my previous life experience might I suggest a model for a BCP commentary/user guide which could be used at many audiences within TEC? I refer to My People’s Prayerbook Series by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (

    You can page through sample pages at the Amazon link: note that prayers are given in Hebrew and English followed by multiple commentaries from various commentators on each section laid out after the fashion of a Rabbinic text – core text in the middle of the page surrounded by standard commentators. Biblical textual sources are also identified within the Hebrew prayers – a feature that might be a worthy addition to the next revision of the BCP….smile

    Ideally such a work might begin with the Eucharistic and then Daily Offices with Pastoral Offices and other content (including Psalmody with commentary) and finishing with the Ordination Rites. These could be made up into individual volumes with a series of questions for reflection and response for formal or nonformal instruuctional use.

    Other thoughts?

  17. Derek Olsen

    I’ve always loved the feel of that layout! The medieval Glossa Ordinaria uses a similar approach. You’re right, the Eucharist and the Offices could really use such a gloss. I’d add in the Catechism for good measure too!

  18. Small Farer in Frisco

    Thanks for noting the similarity of approach with the Glossa Ordinaria, Derek – I had no idea! BTW, did you know that the standard layout of the Talmud was devised by the Flemish Catholic printer Daniel Bomberg in 1520…perhaps the Glossa’s format was adapted by Bomberg for the Talmud as it was already a succcess?

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