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Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People

Living Faithfully as a Prayer Book People

by John H. Westerhoff III

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Episcopalians consider themselves to be people whose individual and corporate lives are shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, but aside from worship on Sunday morning, few know what fills its nearly 1,000 pages. John Westerhoff, Episcopal priest and Christian educator, walks readers through the ways in which the contents of the Prayer Book can (and should) shape the


Episcopalians consider themselves to be people whose individual and corporate lives are shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, but aside from worship on Sunday morning, few know what fills its nearly 1,000 pages. John Westerhoff, Episcopal priest and Christian educator, walks readers through the ways in which the contents of the Prayer Book can (and should) shape the life of those who call themselves Episcopalians. An excellent resource for parish study or reading in advance of seminary training, Westerhoff explores a brief history of the Prayer Book, and the ways in which it shapes us as pilgrim and prayerful people. How Episcopalians live into their baptism, live a Eucharistic and reconciling life, as well as a life of wholeness and health are explored in detail. All of this, as Westerhoff writes, helps us lead a holy life, and one day, to a holy death. John H. Westerhoff is an Episcopal priest, the former professor of theology and Christian nurture at Duke University, the author of many books about Christian education and life. For the last decade he has been theologian-in-residence at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

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LIVING FAITHFULLY as a Prayer Book People


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2004John H. Westerhoff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2567-2



Living a Prayer Book Life

* * *

It is not easy to define an Episcopalian. Yet, in spite of all our differences, we have one outstanding characteristic: We are a prayer book people.

The Anglican Communion represents the continuous tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in England, which became a distinctive entity, the Church of England, during the Reformation era. The Anglican Communion is one of the four divisions of Christianity, the others being the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant churches. The Anglican Communion is comprised of thirty-eight separate national churches or provinces that recognize each other as members of a common tradition within Christianity. A few of these are the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Episcopal Church in Scotland, and the Anglican Church of South Africa While each province is autonomous and self-governing, they are bound together as a spiritual family in which the community of bishops is intended to play a unifying role.

Fundamentally, Anglicans (that includes us Episcopalians) are Christians who worship according to some authorized edition of a Book of Common Prayer and are in communion with the See of Canterbury in England. Our primary identity is as a community of practice. That is, we are bound together by our liturgy rather than by doctrinal propositions, moral absolutes, or social organization. Orthodoxy for us is right worship more than right belief. Our life of prayer shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. To answer what we believe about the Christian life of faith, we turn to our prayer book and engage in a process of interpreting its content.

For us, theological and ethical issues typically become issues concerning our liturgies. We shape our understanding of faith and life through participation in our liturgies. We reflect on our convictions about faith and life by reflecting on our liturgies. We reform our understandings and ways of life by revising our liturgies

It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to explore our identity by reflecting on what it means to be a prayer book people, a tradition in which our understanding of liturgical life encompasses both our ritual life of communal public worship and our daily lives and work as ministry. If others are to understand who we are, indeed, if we are to understand ourselves, we need to participate in our prayer book liturgies and minister together; that is, to serve God every day, in every moment, and in every place we find ourselves.

The purpose of this book is to take a journey through the Book of Common Prayer 1979. We will reflect on its content and comment on its connections with our daily lives.

Human Nature

To begin, to be a prayer book people is to acknowledge that we humans are relational beings, communal persons. As Pascal put it, "One Christian is no Christian." We cannot be Christian outside the church, outside a community of faith and its worship and ministry. There are those who contend that they are spiritual, but not religious. From a Christian perspective, I contend that this is not possible. Christianity is an incarnational, embodied faith. The spiritual life and institutional religion cannot be separated from each other. Another way to say it is this: Personal religion and public worship are interdependent. The drama of the church's history lies in the tensions between these two dimensions and their rival claims.

In her book Worship, Evelyn Underhill explains that the worship life of a Christian, while profoundly personal, is essentially that of a person who is a member of a community. Our personal relationship with God is maintained and kept healthy insofar as we regularly participate in communal worship.

Willard Sperry, Bartlet Professor of Sacred Rhetoric and dean of the Divinity School in Harvard University in 1925, wrote in Reality in Worship:

Wherever and whenever men meet together avowedly to address themselves to the act of worship, there is the church, clearly and distinctly defined.... If the church does nothing else for the world other than keep open a house, symbolic of the homeland of the human soul, where in season and out of season men reaffirm their faith in the universal fatherhood of God, it is doing the social order the greatest possible service and no other service which it renders society can compare in importance to this.... So long as the church bids men to the worship of God and provides a simple and credible vehicle for worship it need not question its place, mission, and influence in the world. If it loses faith in the act of worship, is thoughtless in the ordering of worship, and careless in the conduct of worship, it need not look to its avocations to save it. It is dead at its heart."

Cultic Life and Daily Life

The word liturgy in Greek means public service, and this public service has two dimensions: communal worship or cultic life and daily life and work. Cultic life, which encompasses the world of symbols, myths, and rituals, influences a community's life and work in the world. And how we live, personally and communally, is both a consequence and a test of our cultic faithfulness. Another way to say it is that our habitual participation in a community's cultic life—in those repetitive symbolic acts (word and deed) that express and manifest a community's sacred narratives or myths—shapes our faith or perceptions of life; shapes our characters or our identity and how we are disposed to act; and shapes our consciousness or the subjective awareness that makes particular experiences, like the presence of God, possible. For this reason, throughout history, when the church concluded that it was not living as faithfully as it should, it reformed its rituals. And in general, many people were uncomfortable with these changes because they knew at least unconsciously that if they were to change their ritual life it would influence them to change their daily lives.

To communicate this eternal truth, when Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to compose a piece of music for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he set the text of the Latin mass to music with one important difference. Each Latin text is followed by a folk song in English, revealing the dissonance between, on the one hand, what we say and do in our rituals and, on the other, how we conduct our daily lives.

Thus "Confiteor" (I confess) is followed by a song: "What I say I don't feel, what I feel I don't show." The function of the English text is to expose our blithe "confiteors" to enable each of us to make a more honest confession. But Bernstein did not stop there. He knew that all ritual, in this case the ritual of the Eucharist, belongs to a community, not simply to a collection of individuals.

As Bernstein's Mass begins, a young man in blue jeans gathers people around him and dons the vestments of celebration. By all appearances, these people are a Christian community. But Bernstein aptly paraphrases an axiom from Paul's first letter to the Christian community in Corinth, "Because we eat one bread, we are not necessarily one at all."

Christian unity and community are not solely the result of hymns sung in unison or magnificent anthems sung by choirs. As the Mass proceeds, we see that there are only private meanings in what this group of worshippers do together. They prefer ceremonies that support their private perceptions and lives to the challenging mystery of God's reconciling presence. They prefer music and drama well performed to commitments of faith.

Bernstein then proceeds to illustrate his point. When the piece was produced at Duke University where I once taught, it manifested itself in a particularly dramatic form. The director attempted to show Bernstein, the Jew, trying to make sense of the potentially universal split between cultic and daily life for all religions. The altar was placed on a mountaintop and the celebrant stood above the congregation holding the symbols of Christ's presence, consecrated bread and wine, just as Moses had done with the tablets on Mount Sinai. But we did not see the Israelites carousing about as they did in the golden calf episode—no, these folk were playing at institutional church. And just as Moses hurled the commandments to the ground, the priest hurled down the symbols of Christ's presence and sang, "Things get broken so easily." A prophetic word in the midst of this sacred meal.

There are many reasons for the split between cultic life and daily life. Let's consider a few. First, we live with and participate in many conflicting rituals, such as spectator sports and television advertising, which also aim to influence how we perceive life and our lives as well as how we are to live. Second, our rituals may be inadequate; that is, they lack the character of good ritual. For example, if our rituals focus solely on intellectual or intuitive ways of thinking and knowing, to the neglect of the other, they are inadequate. Third, our rituals may be ineffective because the symbolic action they invite us to participate in may not point to and embrace the moral behaviors we desire. For example, they may encourage us to be individual observers rather than communal participants, or they may encourage us to live a passive rather than an active life. And fourth, our rituals can support and encourage unhealthy ways of life; that is, they can support escape rather than engagement, comfort rather than transformation, and so forth.

The Dynamics of Religion

To provide us with a mechanism for connecting our cultic and daily lives, English sociologist Bruce Reed, in his book The Dynamics of Religion, describes life as a process of oscillation in which people move back and forth from the structured, rational world of daily life and work to the anti-structured, intuitive world of cultic life. The church encourages this movement as a movement between two types of healthy dependence. Cultic life properly focuses our dependent needs for meaning and purpose on God. Reed calls this parent-child relationship "extra-dependence." He contends that this totally dependent relation with God is necessary if we are to live meaningful, purposeful, healthy lives in intra-dependent, adult-adult relationships.

The weekly cycle of healthy human beings, he suggests, looks like this: We disengage from our daily life and work and regress into conscious extra- dependence on God, who nurtures us to reengage with the world of daily life and work and live in healthy relationships with others.

Perhaps a natural human experience will help us understand this process. Picture a parent and a young child in a park. The child is sitting on the parent's lap. Feeling secure, the child ventures forth to play. After being confronted by another child, falling off a swing, and the like, the child runs back and jumps into the parent's lap. After a period of nurture and nourishment, the child runs off and returns to the playground.

However, if the church's ritual life denies or neglects these extra-dependent needs for God and encourages people to seek the satisfaction of these needs in human experiences at worship or in other communal activities, it no longer serves a healthy purpose. Human life is not so much a series of linear events leading toward some goal as it is living between two alternating modes of experience, each having its own value. Our ability to deal with the demands of daily life is related to our willingness to turn to God—on whom we depend as we move from attempts to manage and master our environment to a healthier, resourceless helplessness, from attempts at ego control to a willingness to let go.

If the church does not provide an opportunity, especially through its cultic life, for its members to regress into a transforming experience of being lovingly embraced in the arms of a transcendent God, followed by the experience of being encouraged to move out into the world to live with others in communal relationships that witness to an immanent God's presence and action, the church has neglected its purpose.

Our weekly Eucharist is the means by which we fully realize the identity given to us at our baptism when we were incorporated into Christ's body, infused with Christ's character, and empowered to be Christ's presence in the world. When the body of Christ assembles, it is not primarily to praise God. It is to transform the lives of those who have assembled to be a more faithful body in the world. The Eucharist is a prelude to a weekly missionary sendoff. Nourished by eucharistic food, motivated by the witness to Christ's reconciling action, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, the church is equipped to engage in Christ's mission of reconciliation in the world.

We believe that human beings are created in the image of God and can, therefore, only be whole when united with God. Our common human vocation is to grow in an ever deepening and loving relationship with God. Or as St. Augustine put it, "O God, thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee." Prayer is anything we do that enhances and enlivens our relationship with God. We humans build churches, go to church, and share in formal acts of worship because this divine discontent stirs us and will not let us be.

It is through baptism that we are incorporated into Christ's body, the church, and it is baptism that makes us one and unites us. It is through our participation in the Eucharist that we affirm, support, nurture, and nourish this unity. A community that prays together stays together, no matter how differently each individual may interpret scripture or hold to particular doctrinal or moral convictions.

Churches, like families, can be functional or dysfunctional. They are functional when they encourage and enable people to acknowledge, accept, and confront the chaos of life and their inability to control it. They are healthy when they provide rituals that engage the imagination to bring participants into a relationship with God—who can transform chaos into meaning, despair into hope, torment into peace, sorrow into joy, brokenness into wholeness, sickness into health, death into life. And then, of course, healthy churches send their members forth armed with new vision and power.

Dysfunctional churches encourage regressions into withdrawal or denial and provide a fantasy world of escape. Their rituals fail to have a prophetic edge or don't lead to a confrontation with a living God. Instead, they attempt to provide an escape from reality through inspirational entertainment. Ritual can become so human and clergy centered that it can ignore God, or it can so focus on God that it doesn't confront us with human reality.

Healthy rituals enable us to face the human predicament, bring us in touch with the realities of life, and prepare us to become involved in the affairs of the world. The supportive aspects of community life, small groups, and multitudes of activities can prevent the oscillation process from functioning and turn people in on themselves. The test of our rituals is found in their ability to take both modes of life seriously and to aid people in moving from one to the other.

Symbols, Myths, and Rituals

While signs are objects with defined meanings, symbols point beyond themselves and have power in that they embody that to which they point. Myths are symbolic narratives. Rituals are repetitive symbolic actions (words and deeds) that express and manifest a community's symbolic narratives. They define the nature of goodness, truth, and beauty and provide life with meaning and purpose. Symbols, myths, and rituals encompass the intuitive way of thinking and knowing and are best expressed through the arts: dance, music, drama, poetry, painting, and sculpture, for example. Public worship is comprised of symbols, myths, and rituals and is intended to engage the imagination more than reason, the intellectual way of thinking and knowing. Religion is an art before it is a science. Public worship comes before theology. We Episcopalians are convinced that the life of prayer shapes the life of believing.

In Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination, New Testament scholar and poet Amos Wilder makes a plea for the church to take more seriously the role of symbols and the pre-rational in the way we deal with experience. He points out that human nature and human societies are more deeply motivated by images and fabulations than by ideas.

Nevertheless, there is both an objective and a subjective dimension to our public worship. The history of worship is in part a history of the oscillation between one extreme and the other. Objective worship images God as transcendent mystery; it is worship addressed to God in which sacramental communion is central. In objective worship we experience the soul aspiring to God. Subjective worship images God as immanent friend; it is worship addressed to the worshipper in which the proclamation of the Word is central. In subjective worship we experience God tabernacling with us. Episcopal worship has striven to unite and emphasize both dimensions.


Excerpted from LIVING FAITHFULLY as a Prayer Book People by JOHN H. WESTERHOFF. Copyright © 2004 by John H. Westerhoff. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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