Today, we commemorate the first official use of the English Book of Common Prayer. It came into use on the Day of Pentecost 1549. And I think our two texts from Scripture today really are illuminating as to the way Anglicans understand the Prayer Book.
In the Gospel, Jesus is in dialogue with a Samaritan woman and the conversation gets around to worship, and to where and how proper worship ought to be conducted. Jesus concludes his observations like this: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Now, he obviously wasn’t talking about the Book of Common Prayer (although there really are some similarities between it and the synagogue worship with which Jesus would have been familiar!)
No, he was talking about the need for piety, for devotion, for what we sometimes loosely call today “spirituality” in worship. But also the need for “truth” at the heart of worship. “Sincerity” or even “passion” in worship is not enough if you turn out to be worshipping the wrong thing! Our worship is of the true and living God, not just any old god! And yet worship which is absolutely, theologically-correct but has no fervency or passion can be just as absolutely deadly!
You and I have probably experienced both of those modes of worship, perhaps even in services using the Book of Common Prayer (!). But, at its best, the Prayer Book is intended to balance those things. Even though the 1549, or even 1662, Prayer Book would look to us pretty dry and very priest-centered (with much less congregational participation than we will experience today), in its time the Book of Common Prayer was pretty radical in putting the same book into the hands of the people as in the hands of the priest! And, in a language “understanded” of the people as they would have said in those days!
It was, and is, participatory in style and the written prayers beautifully crafted to lift our hearts to God. But it is also truth-full. It’s a theological document as well as a worship guide, and Anglicans have always looked to the Prayer Book almost as much as to Scripture to inform their theology. In fact, much of the Prayer Book is Scripture – verses and passages of Scripture, set forth as prayer.
Our First Lesson today, from Acts, concludes with this familiar line about worship: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” We know that line from our Baptismal Covenant, but it originally described the activities of the earliest Christians. It is also a fair summary of Prayer Book Christianity! We appropriate apostolic teaching in this church as much by immersing ourselves in worship, listening to the Bible read and expounded upon, singing the hymns and chants, and joining in common prayer as we do in reading theological tomes or memorizing confessional statements.
We engage in fellowship…in communion…in koinonia by coming together Sunday by Sunday and day by day in corporate worship – not only by praying alone in our prayer closets or appreciating God in the beauty of nature.
We participate in the Breaking of Bread, using this Prayer Book. The Holy Eucharist is “the principle act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day” and Prayer Books have always emphasized that, in one way or another, even when weekly celebrations were less frequent than they are today.
And, of course, the Prayer Book helps us pray! Written prayers are not intended to substitute for, or get in the way of, our personal, extemporaneous prayers. I think Episcopalians are actually a lot more comfortable with that kind of praying today than in the past. But beautiful, time-honored, theologically solid prayers like one finds in the Prayer Book can instruct us about prayer. And make even our personal prayers – if not as beautiful – just as well-grounded.
So, as we continue to bask in the glow of Pentecost this week, let us give thanks on this day for our Prayer Book heritage. One of the ways we try to observe our Lord’s instruction to “worship in spirit and in truth!”