The BCP and Spiritual Adventurism

Following an interesting link at YF’s I found an interesting article. The topic is on Episcochameleonism but I’d like to pull something else out of it…

The author (a conservative Anglican priest) writes:

28 years ago when I noticed that the opening of the Eucharist was a takeoff on the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, I went out and ordered three sets of Greek Orthodox vestments. It was early in my Anglo-Catholic days, and I was playing one of the classic Anglo-Catholic games–more high-church than thou. Even in a diocese that described itself historically as Anglo-Catholic, I won hands down. A year or so later I discovered the born-again movement, and it was time to play some different games.

Not every Episcopal cleric plays games like I did. At the time I didn’t know it was a game, and I did not mean to play games with other people’s lives as, regrettably, I often did. The fact is I found myself playing church for a living, and I was shocked.

He identifies something here that is very important for the recent discussions on the prayer book. There is a large percentage of the current Episcopal clergy who I regard as “seekers”. That is to say, they are still looking and searching for the deep connection with God and the holy that their soul calls them too. I’d hazard a guess that many of them are clergy because it gives them an opportunity to be a full-time “religious/spiritual person” and still be able to draw a salary. Some, like the priest quoted above, do this while remaining within the prescribed boundaries of the church (canon, creed, sacraments a la Chicago-Lambeth); others, not so much

Is this seeking or spiritual adventurism necessarily bad? Maybe not as long as an individual stays within the boundaries of the Church but definitely yes when it stops being an individual journey and is foisted on congregations.

The Book of Common Prayer is, among other things, a defense for laity against spiritual adventurism on the part of the clergy.

That having been said, it is no fail-safe. Even when the rite is followed as written, ceremonial, vestment, and other choices can still throw things off quite a bit—but let’s at least keep in place what safeguards we have!

I am sympathetic to the spiritual adventurers, being one myself to a certain degree. I have always, however, had a conviction that my own personal spirituality not be placed onto a congregation and was perhaps the most significant reason that I left the ELCA’s ordination process. (I couldn’t live with the average ELCA parish’s attitudes towards the sacraments and would have felt compelled to change it; I can live with the average Episcopal parish’s sacramental sense…) I have enormous respect for the rector under whom M served as a deacon. He was an Anglican Missal guy but the way he adapted his use was such that the congregational text was always the BCP. He was a Missal guy—but no one else had to be just because he was.

On one-hand, I’m open to legitimate spiritual adventurism on the part of the clergy in so far as it reflects necessary growth and listening to the Spirit and transformation into the Mind of Christ. On the other hand, I believe that much of it reflects a failure of our discernment and formation processes. Yes, it’s fine to deepen, but I’m seeing a lot more wandering around than rooting down. Further liberalizing the already generous and liberal options of the prayer book to endorse these behaviors is entirely unwarranted. Rather, a re-focus of the issue placing it in terms of the obedience and stability necessary for conversion of life is the ticket.

18 thoughts on “The BCP and Spiritual Adventurism

  1. Christopher

    F.D. Maurice also said that the Apostles’ Creed is a defense against spiritual tyrants, both gurus and the ordained. The BCP is a fuller expression of this same principle. Common prayer–for all, as Maurice argues in his book of sermons, The Prayer Book

    Being a spiritual adventurist can take more than one form. To deepen in a particular form is one trajectory. To dabble is another.

    One of the things I really dislike about this latter trend is that it suggests that to be really spiritual, one must be clergy–I see this in who is showing up at our seminaries.

    I have resisted this impulse with every fiber of my being. What I once thought a deficiency, not being ordained, is now a blessing, an opportunity to flesh out lay practice as fully spiritual.

    Some of these folks haven’t even been Episcopalian very long. How about 10 years minimum praying daily the BCP before ordination? Many of these folks haven’t even prayed the BCP all that much or long. And they want to change it? This would be unthinkable in the Greek or Russian Church. And I would like it be less thinkable in our own. It too easily lets ego rather than the Mind of Christ set the tone. And it’s often coupled with lack of competence to actually do liturgics, as Fr Haller notes.

  2. Lee

    When I attended the Church of the Advent in Boston for a year, I ran into a number of folks who fit this description (not the clergy, thankfully). And I was always puzzled by the number of people who wanted to be ordained – it was almost as if to be “really” spiritual/religious you had to be a priest. (Not that the ELCA doesn’t have its own problems.)

    Anyway, I always liked C.S. Lewis’s dictum that the Lord’s command was “Feed my sheep,” not “Perform experiments on my rats.”

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    One of the things I really dislike about this latter trend is that it suggests that to be really spiritual, one must be clergy–I see this in who is showing up at our seminaries.

    …it was almost as if to be “really” spiritual/religious you had to be a priest

    Yes! I’ve seen that as well.

    Long-term formation with and in the BCP is essential.

  4. The young fogey

    Thanks for the mention. The part you’ve emboldened sounds familiar and certainly is true of all Catholic liturgical books: they do protect the laity from that!

  5. Ian

    I’m 26, and for about the last 10 years of my life I have been telling people I want to be ordained in order to convince them (and myself) that I was a “real” Christian. But, actually, I’m just a lazy spiritual adventurer wannabe. (I struggle to do even one Office each day.)

    I wonder if the committees that work with ordination candidates are often so spiritually dried up that anyone with a little vitality, even if it’s confused, seems like a good candidate by comparison?

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this.

  6. Pingback: Clergy and theological/liturgical experimentation « A Thinking Reed

  7. Joe Rawls

    I took a failed shot at ordination in the Diocese of Los Angeles 20 years ago. I made the mistake of admitting during the bacom that I was interested in things like liturgy and monasticism. They wanted people with good managerial skills and not much else. So in that case they managed to screen out “spiritual adventurers”–which I don’t consider myself to be, although someone looking at my blog could admittedly get the opposite idea.

  8. Camassia

    When I attended an ELCA church a few years ago, the pastor and one or two other people thought I should go to seminary. I thought it was a bizarre idea, but they basically said it was because I was so interested in learning and discussing theological subjects. I wonder how many of the seekers you knew ended up ordained partly through similar urging. It may be a side effect of our entrepreneurial society that any enthusiasm for something is naturally translated into a career…

  9. John-Julian, OJN

    From last week’s “The Tablet” in the “Letter from Rome”:

    ‘Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, told Vatican Radio this week….He said that “even all the laity must realise” that an ordained priest is “not just a reminder of Christ, but is His Actual Presence”, specifically through the“sacramental absolution” of sins, the
    “celebration of the Holy Mass” and preaching.’ (caps are mine)

    And they wonder why they have problems…..

  10. The young fogey

    Abp Piacenza’s statement could be misused in the way we all fear (given fallen human nature the mistake I describe below is easy to fall into) but in another sense it’s true! Of course you know the difference between sacerdotalism (belief in the sacramental grace transmitted through the priesthood, the authentic Catholic position) and clericalism (its caricature, when that’s mistaken for a personal attribute, a kind of arrogance, or often why people want to be clergy for the wrong reasons, commonly called collar lust, purple fever etc.). Of course an often subtle manifestation of clericalism is what’s been talked about here: ‘to be really spiritual, one must be clergy’.

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    I often wonder what COM are thinking–and wonder at the disparity between different diocese!

    YF, you bring up the helpful distinction with which many of us are familiar. I think a lot of keeping it on the healthy side has to do with culture of the church which is influenced by the statements of the hierarchy. For instance, the quote above without a healthy counter-balance—like the Pauline reminder that even apostles are but clay vessels—helps create clericalist cultures (which infect a great many churches and denominations…).

  12. Dave

    My seminary experience reflects what is being said. Many were in a the midst of a mid-life crisis and wanted to be paid for being spiritual seekers. Let’s pray and study alot and get paid for it! They also were the worst ones for changing words in the BCP or experimenting with liturgy.

    I once got in trouble during Morning Prayer for saying the Rite I version of The Prayer of St. John Chrysostom in a Rite II service. I retorted that if they were able to change the words to the Sursum Corda or the Santus in the Eucharist to fit their individual needs, why couldn’t I in Morning Prayer? To which I received no answer.

  13. Ren Aguila

    Dave, I am not surprised that the tendency is for most seminarians to be people in a mid-life crisis–the age seems to be an issue, and there still seems to be a tendency to discourage younger (and I suspect less adventurous) people from joining the ministry. How recently have you been in seminary?

    And on Abp. Piacenza’s statement, yes, it has to be balanced with something about the frailty of humanity (and their institutions). I do suggest though that such statements are as much meant to boost morale among Roman priests than they are to articulate what can be construed as a clericalism I still find unfortunately present in Rome and elsewhere.

  14. Dave


    I graduated in 2003, and includes a sojourn at another Mainline Seminary. I found the same things at both seminaries.

    I think the problem with experimenting with the liturgy is the narcissism of the experimenters. They couch it in inclusive/seeker language, but in reality it is “me”.

  15. Christopher

    As antidote to the particular sarcedotal understanding above, I offer this from Maurice in his “The Kingdom of Christ”:

    “…I have spoken of ministers as representing Christ to men. Long before there was the assertion of a supreme vicar of Christ upon earth, there was a feeling in men’s minds, that the office of the priest is vicarial, that ministers are deputed by our Lord to do that work now which He did Himself while He was upon earth….Now those who laugh at the notion of a man like Athanasius contending to the death about an iota, will, of course, be much amused by my affecting to discover an important difference of signification in the words representative and vicarial….In the word vicarial, the Romanist means to embody his notion of that the priest is doing the work of one who is absent, and who, only at certain times and under certain conditions, presents himself to men. By the word representative, I mean to express the truth that the minister sets forth Christ to men as present in His Church at all times, as exercising those functions Himself upon which He entered when He ascended on high.”

    As Allchin and Ramsey would remind us, we have a different notion of the sarcedotal than the Roman Church. Christ is never absent in our notion, but is our Present Head and Great High Priest. Some early Anglo-Catholics, as both note, offered notions to closely aping the understanding of the Roman Church (and its understanding of apostolicity), but in ongoing conversation with other parties, our own understanding has refined itself. Maurice’s quote still stands as an Anglican rejoinder.

  16. Sean+ Lotz

    To some priests I say in the privacy of my own head, “Father, nobody comes to church for *you*, and if they do, it is your job to help them outgrow that as quickly as possible. It certainly is not your place to encourage it.” The common liturgical heritage of the Church as a whole and of any denomination is the property of the people; it belongs to them as an inheritance. The clergy do not have the right to muck it up. Your personality can, will, and should come out strongly in certain ways. Confine your self-expression to those legitimate outlets.

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