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Praying Shapes Believing

Praying Shapes Believing

by Leonel L. Mitchell

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Praying Shapes Believing


Praying Shapes Believing

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A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer

By Leonel L. Mitchell

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 1985 Leonel L. Mitchell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-1553-6


The Service of the Church

The Church is first and foremost a worshiping community. It is the synaxis, the gathering together of the people of God for corporate worship, which is the heart and soul of the Church's life. We say this in a great many ways. Massey Shepherd, writing in the original Church's Teaching Series in 1952, quoted the acts of the 4th-century martyrs:

As if a Christian could exist without the Eucharist, or the Eucharist be celebrated without a Christian! Don't you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist and the Eucharist by a Christian?

Associated Parishes, an organization of the Episcopal Church dedicated to liturgical and parochial renewal, said it this way:

Jesus Christ is the Lord of all creation and is the Head of the human race. Through Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the Christian Church is called to worship God the Father, to await His kingdom, and to serve in His world.... The Holy Eucharist is the characteristic and representative action of the Church in the fulfillment of this vocation.... From the altar, God's redeeming and renewing power reaches out into every phase of life; to the altar every aspect of our existence is to be gathered up and offered to God through Christ in the fellowship of His Holy Spirit.

Vatican Council II, in the second paragraph of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, put it like this:

... it is the liturgy through which, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, "the work of our redemption is accomplished," and it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.

We should not be surprised, then, to find the Prayer Book sounding this same note at its very beginning, in the section entitled "Concerning the Service of the Church" (BCP: 13):

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord's Day and other major feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church.

We might follow this up with the statements of the catechism, An Outline of the Faith (BCP: 859f):

... the Eucharist, the Church's sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself.... The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.

The Prayer Book lays out at its beginning the traditional Christian and Catholic format of the life of the Church. At its center is the Lord's Service, the Holy Eucharist, celebrated by the Lord's people on the Lord's Day, Sunday. The Holy Eucharist is our common gathering as the family of God, united with one another in Christ our head to celebrate his death and resurrection until he comes again. But the Sunday eucharist does not stand in isolation. Daily Morning and Evening Prayer provide the supporting framework of corporate and personal prayer for the Sunday liturgy.

This is the ongoing structure of the liturgical life of the Church which is the focus of the new life in Christ. It does not sit alone and isolated from the day-to-day business of living, but permeates it and offers it all—joys, sorrows, successes, failures, frustrations, anger, and love—to God. The psalmist sings not only "Have mercy upon us, O Lord" (Psalm 123:4) and "Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens" (Psalm 148:1), but also "Greatly have they oppressed me from my youth up" (Psalm 129:1), and "Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!" (Psalm 137:8). The prayer of God's children offers up all of life to God.

The Context of Liturgical Life

This ongoing life in Christ is set in the traditional context not only of the day, with Morning and Evening Prayer, and of the week, with the Sunday eucharist, but also in the context of the whole year as a liturgical expression of the work of our redemption. The liturgical year has its roots in the early centuries of the Church's life and turns the mystery of life in Christ like a fine jewel so that we see it reflected and refracted through different windows as we pass from Advent through Christmas to Epiphany and then from Lent through Holy Week to Easter and Pentecost and the season following. It is in this traditional "year," and especially in the celebration of the Good Friday-Easter sequence, that the work of our redemption is proclaimed and celebrated.

The initiation of new Christians has been the central act of this sequence since at least the fourth century. The Great Vigil of Easter was intended to be the clearest and fullest expression of the meaning of our faith and life, and this Vigil has been restored to a central position in our Prayer Book. This restoration, in turn, also restores focus to the Church year and gives a context to the sacraments of Christian Initiation.

Finally, the Prayer Book provides appropriate rituals for the important personal occasions of life—births, weddings, sickness, death—and for the ordering of the Christian community with rites for ordinations, consecrating churches, and beginning ministries. All of these are related to the central celebration of the eucharist and are ways of bringing the specific occasions of individual and communal life into the eucharistic assembly.

Liturgical Roles

The Prayer Book not only provides a framework for the liturgical life of the Church; it also provides for the full and active participation of the entire people of God in that life.

In all services, the entire Christian assembly participates in such a way that the members of each order within the Church, lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons, fulfill the functions proper to their respective orders, as set forth in the rubrical directions for each service. (BCP: 13)

The rubrics of the individual services naturally provide the specific directions for participation, but the principle of common participation by the entire assembly, a principle which stands at the very center of the Liturgical Movement of the 20th century, is there established. This is certainly not a novel idea for Episcopalians. It seems to be both a logical extension of the insistence of the Reformers that the people should be able to understand the worship they attend and a restoration of the earlier practice of the Church.

This participation is not to be without order, but all are to "fulfill the functions proper to their respective orders." This is made more explicit in the rubric which follows and describes the bishop and priest as the normal leaders of worship, but permits deacons and lay persons to preside at the Liturgy of the Word when no priest is available. The principle underlying this directive is the Pauline one of the many members of the one body, each having different functions (1 Corinthians 12).

The ordination rites and the general rubrics at the beginning of individual services will, of course, describe the different functions of the four orders in more detail, but the important point being made here is that each order has its own liturgical functions and should be permitted to fill them. At one level this has to do with the proper ordering of rites and making clear ritually the different roles of different orders, but there is also a theological dimension. If the theology of ministry is not manifested in the liturgical actions of the ministers, then there is a disparity between the lex orandi and the lex credendi. If this disparity is great enough, either orders of ministry will be seen as irrelevant to the actual worship of the congregation, or, more likely, the theology of ministry which is expressed in the liturgy will supplant the official theology in the minds of worshipers. It is difficult, for instance, to explain the theological importance of the diaconate in a parish in which the deacon's liturgical role is always filled by a priest, or to explain the role of the laity in the Body of Christ at worship if all liturgical functions are performed by ordained persons.

The Prayer Book speaks of "exceptional circumstances, when the services of a priest cannot be obtained" (BCP: 13) and permits the authorization of deacons to preside at other rites. The Canons also permit lay readers to preside at some services. These, however, are exceptional circumstances, and their effect is to subordinate the liturgical functioning of the ordained ministers to the needs of the assembly of the people of God. Generally speaking, Episcopalians have not been willing to carry this principle to the extent of permitting lay persons or deacons to preside at the eucharist. We have traditionally seen a necessary theological connection between priestly ordination and eucharistic presidency. In the same way, we have seen a necessary connection between episcopal presidency and ordination. Other Christians have not always seen these liturgical roles as being required theologically, and they have been willing to authorize lay presidency of the eucharist or ordination effected by priests or presbyters. The examination of the ordination rites will give us an opportunity to explore this more fully, but the Episcopal Church is clearly in the tradition of both Anglicanism and the Catholic Church in these practices.

Liturgical Continuity

One further theological reflection should be made concerning the material in this section. It concerns continuity with the liturgy of the past. The classic expression of this continuity has normally been found in the preface to the Prayer Book of 1789, which has been printed as the Preface of every succeeding American Prayer Book. It contains this statement:

... this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require. (BCP: 11)

In 1789, this was a clear discription of the doctrinal and liturgical position of the fledgling Episcopal Church. Its Prayer Book and other formularies could be compared with those of the Church of England and interpreted in their light. Since that time, not only has the Church of England itself engaged in liturgical reform, producing Alternative Services 1980, but the various churches of the Anglican Communion have adopted their own variants of the Book of Common Prayer, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of the liturgical bond of the Anglican Communion. Certainly this is an issue of which the leaders of the various national churches are quite aware, and serious efforts are being made to assure that the liturgical continuity with the English Prayer Book of 1662, which was once the hallmark of Anglican unity, is not abandoned but brought up to date on the basis of common liturgical principles. We need to recognize also that the Anglican Communion is a much more ethnically and culturally diverse body today than it was in 1789. Much of it does not worship in the English language, and much of it is African, Asian, or Caribbean in culture.

A more fruitful place for us to begin appears to be the provisions for the use of "previously authorized liturgical texts" when it is desired to sing music composed for them (BCP: 14). These provisions permit the continued use of classical Anglican liturgical music, as well as the great liturgical music of the Western Church which has formed a part of so much Anglican worship, and avoids the loss to liturgical celebration of the treasury of liturgical music that the Roman Catholic Church experienced in its recent liturgical reform. But there is more involved here than music. The provisions recognize that the worship of the 1979 Prayer Book is continuous with that of the earlier liturgical tradition, and they affirm that the services in the Prayer Book are the legitimate descendants of those in the earlier books.

The same point could also be made from the inclusion of the Rite One traditional language services in the Prayer Book, and the provision that other services may be conformed to the traditional language (BCP: 14). The continued use of the music and the texts from previous books, and the inclusion of much traditional language material in the present Prayer Book, combine with the continuity of title and authorization to ensure that this liturgy is related to that previously used and has, in fact, developed from it and its collateral relatives.


The Calendar, Times and Seasons

The first major section of the Prayer Book, following its general introductory rubrics, "Concerning the Service of the Church" (BCP: 13-14), is the Calendar (BCP: 15-33). Closely related to it are the Collects (BCP: 159-261), the Proper Liturgies for Special Days (BCP: 264-95), and the various tables and lectionaries (BCP: 881-1001). Together they make up a substantial portion of the Prayer Book. We must therefore recognize that a concern with liturgical time, festival and season is an important part of our religious heritage, as it has been traditionally in Christianity and in most other religions. The establishment of a calendar of festivals has been an important function of most religions throughout history.

The most significant questions to be asked about the calendar have been well posed by Louis Bouyer in his classic work Liturgical Piety.

Is the liturgical year to be understood merely as a kind of high evangelical pedagogy? Is it merely a psychological device invented to make us meditate in turn on all the phases, all the events, in the life and death of our Lord? Is it merely a system of readings, songs and prayers so arranged as to cause us to go more deeply each year into the meaning of the Word of God and enable us to understand it more fully?

Certainly the liturgical year does all of these things; but are they all it does? Is there some real relationship between the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Christ? Is there some reason beyond mere convenience for worshiping on Sunday rather than on Thursday? If the answers to these questions are not at least in some sense yes, then we may well ask with Bouyer, "Were not the Puritans really right after all when they rejected the whole liturgical year as being a baseless superstition?"

Certainly, too, the liturgical year has frequently been presented as if it were a particularly successful lesson plan for churchwide Christian education. But such is a truly secondary consideration. Massey Shepherd has stated the traditional view with vigor and clarity.

The Christian year is a mystery through which every moment and all the times and seasons of this life are transcended and fulfilled in that reality which is beyond time. Each single holy day, each single gospel pericope in the sequence of the year, is of itself a sacrament of the whole gospel. Each single feast renews the fulness and fulfillment of the Feast of feasts, our death and resurrection with Christ.

Shepherd describes this view of the liturgical year as "sacramental." It is also called mysteriological. It sees a real relationship between the liturgical celebration and the reality being celebrated, such that the participants in the celebration become participants in the saving reality. We find this view implied if not actually expressed in the collects for various feasts, especially the three principal feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

The first Christmas collect speaks of celebrating "the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son." This declaration makes no greater demand than that we accept Christmas as the anniversary of Christ's birth. The second collect, however, goes beyond memorializing a birth date and says, "You have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light" (BCP: 212). It identifies this night with the breaking forth into this world of the true Light which is Christ, and it identifies the celebration of the festival with the shining of the Christ Light into our lives. To celebrate Christmas, then, is in a real sense to participate in the event which it celebrates. The third Christmas collect speaks of Christ as "born [this day] of a pure virgin," again identifying the festival with the saving event it celebrates. The brackets surrounding "[this day]" make the point even more clearly, since they are to be omitted if the collect is used on a day other than Christmas.

This same identification is found in the second and third Easter collects (BCP: 222). The second, which is also the traditional collect for the Great Vigil, prays, "O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the light of the Lord's resurrection...." The third speaks of celebrating with joy "the day of the Lord's resurrection." The point is made even more clearly in the Exsultet, the paean of praise sung at the lighting of the Paschal Candle at the Great Vigil. Over and over again the phrase is repeated, "This is the night ..." [emphasis mine] (BCP: 286f), as the mighty acts of God in the Exodus and the resurrection of Christ are proclaimed. Both Pentecost collects also use the phrase "on this day" to describe the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples (BCP: 227).

Excerpted from PRAYING SHAPES BELIEVING by Leonel L. Mitchell. Copyright © 1985 Leonel L. Mitchell. 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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Meet the Author

Ruth A. Meyers is Dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California. She served as chair of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music through the conclusion of the 2012–2015 triennium and teaches throughout the Anglican Communion.

Leonel L. Mitchell (1930–2012), one of the scholars responsible for The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, was an Episcopal priest and Professor of Liturgics at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.

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