Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bored With the Book of Common Prayer?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (II Timothy 4:3-4)

These verses of scripture certainly can be—and have been—used as a cudgel to beat up on one’s ideological foes, and most often, I suspect, in disputes between professing Christians. It is not my intention to weaponize them once again. Yet, they do mean something, and that phrase “itching ears” has long fascinated me. It bespeaks a propensity—one that all people share, I would say—to look and listen selectively, paying attention only to those data that tend to corroborate our prejudices and bolster our inclinations.

Having itching ears is less of a problem for some sorts of Christians than it is for others. The followers of Harold Camping, having been assured that all churches are apostate, are at liberty to scratch their itch by divesting themselves of their worldly goods in anticipation of being caught up in the air to meet Jesus barely 72 hours from when I write. Others—Anglicans, for example—are by definition accountable to an array of constraints that make treating the itch more of a challenge. We have scriptures, creeds, sacraments, and liturgies that the current generation did not invent, and which all—of whatever stripe of ideology or churchmanship—agree cannot be lightly tossed aside.

Lightly, that is.

From time to time—more frequently now that I am a bishop—I find myself in situations of corporate worship with other Episcopalians. Whether it’s sitting in a pew on a rare Sunday off, or attending a meeting or conference or the like, I have come to expect that what I find when I step into the worship space will probably not be a straight-from-the-book BCP service. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. On occasion, it’s one of the authorized supplemental texts from Enriching Our Worship, but not often. And, of course, there is the unauthorized but widespread informal emendation of Prayer Book language to render it more palatable to various sensibilities (“And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever…”, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord”, “Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel [and Leah]”). But I’m not actually talking about this sort of thing either (although, arguably, it deserves to be talked about).

No, what I have in mind are worship services that are cobbled together not quite on the spur of the moment, but almost. They appear on a printed sheet or booklet, so presumably some amount of thought has gone into them. They’re not exactly confected from whole cloth, because very often they incorporate substantial material from a Prayer Book rite (“Scenes from Morning Prayer,” some of them might be called). But they are almost invariably at a time of day for which there is an appropriate Prayer Book office. So, one wonders, why not simply use what we have? From whence comes the need to tinker?

Two factors immediately suggest themselves. One is a fairly widespread aversion in some quarters to traditional liturgical language that is considered sexist and/or patriarchal and/or insensitive to non-western cultures and thought patterns. The other is a practical concern to integrate worship with the particular objectives or ethos of a conference or retreat.

I wonder, however, whether a major contributing factor, and perhaps the major contributing factor, is simply … boredom. Itching ears. We are an over-stimulated society. We are addicted to constant change. Popular culture (music, fashion, entertainment media) is in a state of continual flux. Technology evolves so rapidly that the cycle of obsolescence keeps getting shorter and shorter. “Yesterday’s news” is no longer a euphemism but a literal descriptor. Should it be a surprise that people who exist in, and are formed by, secular culture would carry their conditioning with them into the councils of the church?

Of course, the status quo is not always worthy of acceptance. The fact that we see so much amateur DIY worship at church functions is indicative of the generally low level of knowledge of the inherent character and telos of liturgy, as well as formation in the praxis of liturgy, even among those who are supposed to be the stewards of the church’s worship (i.e. bishops and presbyters). Mind the (Catechesis) Gap, we might say. Only the gap is more like a canyon.

So it’s an uphill struggle, but, I hope, worth the effort. I don’t expect much to change any time soon. But as we begin to collectively “get it” that we live in a post-Constantinian age, that our mission (yea, our survival) depends on our developing effective counter-cultural strategies and language and intellectual habits, perhaps our liturgical tradition will be more widely appreciated for the anchor that it is. Perhaps it will someday be seen as not quite so boring. Perhaps it will even be known to be balm to our ears.


Anonymous said...


When I get bored with the Prayer Book for the Daily Office, I move the other direction and use The Anglican Breviary. Why can't our DIY liturgies move up the candle (so-to-speak)?

Anonymous said...

Over the years I have struggled to dial down my critical nature during liturgies in order to try to worship when rubrics are completely disregarded, often through oversight. The one that most often annoys me up is a service of Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer with two lessons, but none from the Old Testament. When more than one Reading is used at an Office, the first is always from the Old Testament (or the Apocrypha). p. 934


Unknown said...

When I'm bored is when I most need the BCP.

Also, when one of the primary values of the culture is individual self-created identity and choice, is it any wonder that the temptation to "improve upon" or "individualize" the liturgy is rampant in the church?

Thus, you are correct that to be straight prayerbook is incredibly counter-cultural.

Bob Griffith said...

I absolutely agree with you on this, and my hope is that we will realize and come again to our Tradition - that which has proven itself through centuries, cultures, and trials. All my experience and the demographic data suggests that this is exactly what the unchurched or nearly-churched young people are seeking in these days.

I fear, however, that this will not happen until the current leadership of the Church that is too often consumed by and beholden to a 1960's zeitgeist retires out of office. Or, until all the money is gone.

Brandon Filbert said...

Excellent points, all around. Increasingly, I am encountering priests and deacons who know very little about the BCP or liturgical theology, to the point that they literally cannot make it through the Prayer Book service. The attitude seems to be founded on the belief that the individual experience is all that matters, and that all eras before about 1990 were oppressive and benighted.

These DIY "services" printed up for each and every occasion have often managed to combine the worst of ignorance with consumerism. They create an experience of "disposability" in worship, often reinforcing the unspoken assumption that worship of God is really a secondary matter as compared to some other agenda or issue. It seems to me that the assumptions of much of the 1979 revision have been forgotten, ignored, or found too difficult... and we are slipping into exactly the sort of hyper-individualized, transient (and thus frequently trivial) worship patterns I saw growing up in the Methodist church.

The above commenter is quite possibly correct, however. For a variety of reasons, we seem to be in an era that cannot draw obvious conclusions from observable reality around us—so strong is the ideological “lock.” So, we continue to do the things that erode the very gift we have to give. In the post-Constantinian age, it is not conformity to the blowing winds of culture, but a loving rootedness in the eternally-new Apostolic faith that will survive--and thrive.

The above commenter is quite possibly correct, however. For a variety of reasons, we seem to be locked in an era that cannot draw obvious conclusions from observable reality around us. So, we continue to do the things that erode the very gift we have to give. In the post-Constantinian age, it is not conformity to the blowing winds of culture, but a loving rootedness in the eternally-new Apostolic faith that will survive--and thrive.

Fr. J said...

A wonderful post, Bishop Martins. And what it points to, not so much as the impoverishment of our do-it-yourself worship, is the restlessness of our spirit. It comes back to authority. Do we receive the ancient tradition as an authority that directs us or merely as a shopping cart to which we can add or remove items as the mood takes us? The answer to that makes all the difference.

Kelso said...

Dear Bishop:

You were given that Shepherd's Staff for two reasons: to lead the faithful - and to smite the wolves!

Had we Bishops driving away "strange and erroneous" doctrine (as they were charged to do) back in the 1960s, the rot that has all but destroyed what used to be America's most respected denomination would have been stopped.

Bad bishops led to services which are now indistinguishable from Holy Holler Hootenanny services, not to mention Clown Masses and Folk Masses and "do it yourself" wedding vows and "write your own liturgy for Easter" - all exercises in banality.

Please read "Treasure in Clay", the autobiography of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. You won't go far wrong if you model your episcopacy on his - and you will be able to lead your diocese in a Godly direction. It will strengthen you for the hard days ahead.

One of the great things about being an Episcopalian (formerly that is) was that I could go to any church in any city of the nation and walk in and know exactly where we were in the service. "Common Prayer" no longer exists in our parishes. We have lost our patrimony.

liturgy said...

Thanks for this post, which stands in good dialogue with my:

Christ is risen!


Anonymous said...

I'm very glad that I live in an area where if a service is not going to be straight 1979 BCP it's because the priest has added bits of the Latin Mass or has reverted to the 1928 or 1662 BCP.