This is Not a Project: Introduction Reflections on the Book of Common Prayer

So, a while back I embarked on a project to talk through the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, but I quickly abandoned it. I’m not even going to link to it. I was trying to go through systematically, with some theological and historical rigor. What I realized is that projects like that are a great idea, but not for me. I’m an Old Testament scholar, and the BCP is a couple thousand years outside of my expertise.

But, I’ve told people before that I have a love-affair with the Book which can only be described as “torrid.” So I keep wanting to write about it in some way. And a couple of weeks ago my wife, Carrie, pointed out one way that I could do it. I made an offhand comment about a rubric and how it is frequently applied poorly, being rather sarcastic and somewhat profane. She then told me “You should write that. Just a commentary that explains stuff like that.”

So, this is my commentary on the BCP. It is aggressively not what a commentary ought to be. It is as researched as I choose, as thorough or cursory as I please, and as profane as I actually speak.

I’m starting out using the 1928 because I’m on vacation and it was handy, and because it jolly well pleases me to.

As a brief introductory note for reference: The Book of Common Prayer is the official liturgy of Anglican and Episcopal churches worldwide. The first Book was published in 1549, after Henry VIII broke communion with the church in Rome. Since then, the BCP has gone through a number of revisions and updates. It includes influence from Benedictine daily prayer, from the Latin Tridentine liturgy, and also from earlier English and Celtic communion liturgies, especially a liturgy called the “Sarum Rite,” which originated at Salisbury Cathedral. It’s had such a strong influence on English culture and language that there are phrases from the Book that you probably use and don’t even know it. Perhaps the most recognizable is the introduction to the marriage service, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God.”

I’m skipping over the introductory material and calendars and such, because I’m not your catechist and I’m not going to hold your hand through all of it. Book upon book have been written on the Church Calendar and can and should be bought, checked out, scrounged or stolen, and read at your own convenience. I’m currently reading “The Cloister Walk” by Kathleen Norris on the subject. Highly recommend.

I’m starting with Morning Prayer, the Introductory Sentences. Pages 3-5 in the 1928, and pages I-left-mine-in-Connecticut in the 1979.

There is a strange game that happens in my head when I start praying Morning Prayer. My immediate tendency is to try to justify my prayer habits to everybody I’ve ever known: the Messianics and Baptists I grew up with, the Presbyterians who told me that you should only pray from the words of the Bible, the Catholics and Orthodox I admire, my parents, my sister, my in-laws. As if they’re all there looking over my shoulder and judging how I pray.

The result is that I use no fewer than two, but as many as four of the introductory sentences. For a couple reasons. First, hopefully, to give me time to focus on praying. The Introductory Sentences are really helpful for reminding you what praying is about. From “The Lord is in His holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” to “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto the sorrow which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me,” they remind you what the season is about, and to come completely before God.

But, if I’m honest, they also provide a counter-balance to the long prayers which follow which are not directly from Scripture. The introductory sentences end up serving sort of as my justification for what comes next. My “See? This is all from the Bible. Directly from the Bible,” directed at those imaginary people looking over my shoulder. What I’ve learned from this is that if I can’t shut those voices up at this point, in the very beginning, they are going to continue to be a distraction throughout my prayer. If I can shut them up, though, I can usually concentrate after that. It should probably teach me to slow down at the beginning of things generally, and prayer specifically, to make sure that I start as well as I can. It’s also lead me to nearly always start with Habakkuk 2:20, followed by silence, and then an Introductory Sentence appropriate to the day.

I think I picked that practice up with the Anglican Student Ministry at Baylor. I can’t quite remember if we always started with “The Lord is in His holy Temple,” or if we only started with it most of the time, but either way, my practice was definitely inspired by that experience.

Next time, I’ll probably talk about the General Confession. I want to stress that I don’t have to. If I wanted to talk about Baptism next I could. But I like the General Confession a lot, so there’s a good chance I’ll talk about that next.

 

 


Matthew D. Wiseman

Matthew David Wiseman is a Ph.D. student in Hebrew Bible at the University of Saint Andrews, working on a dissertation in the linguistics of Hebrew poetry. A native a Midland, Texas, Matthew was raised in restorationist movements before joining the ACNA in college. He holds a B.A. in Linguistics from Baylor and an M.A. in Religion from Duke, where he met his wife Caroline. They currently reside in Scotland.


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