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"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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The Book of Common Prayer: St. James Cathedral, October 14th 2012
A sermon on the BCP is almost a self-contradiction; and most likely thin gruel in any case. It’s like going to lecture on the exciting joys of model-boat construction. Sermons are in any case usually about things we can think of – ideas, propositions, doctrines, inspiring stories. Oddly enough, Anglicanism has very few of these at the center of its life – as we well know: no big Confessions; no magisterial theologians to pore over; no dogmatics to argue about and to preach on point by point. And while we have our heroines and heroes, they have not started mass movements, or overturned tyrannical regimes or single-handedly brought hope to the hopeless.
Instead, we have a BCP. And it is its 350th anniversary – that is, from its 1662 classic edition – that we celebrate today. Originally composed, edited and rendered into English in the mid 16th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, the BCP became the single most identifying and formative tool of the English Reformation and subsequent Anglicanism. The 1662 edition , which was not much different from its earlier16th-century form, embodied a renewal of the established Church of England after a period of bloody civil wars and religious turmoil. It was a sign of rediscovered civic stability. Although it was revised here and there, the 1662 edition has furthermore been or formed the primary basis of every Anglican prayerbook around the world, to the recent present.
Is all this “inspiring”? I don’t know. But it is important. In 2006, I returned to Burundi, Africa, where I had worked for the church 20 years earlier. They had just come out of 13 years of their own civil war, far bloodier than anything in England in the 17th century, with hundreds of thousands of persons killed. At one point, I had a conversation with a group of Christians: “what was the safest church to be a member of during the civil war?”, I asked them. “The Anglican Church”, they replied. That’s where you had the greatest chance of survival. And why was that? Their answers were complicated. Still, one of the central reasons, they all agreed, was the BCP: their literally translated Kirundi version of the 1662 English prayerbook. “We all prayed together”, they said. Across the country, across regions and ethnic groups and hillsides and political affiliations: we all heard the same things, received the same things, prayed the same things. Killing each other didn’t fit the way we prayed, as it did in other churches.
And we too have the BCP: which means we pray. And in this, we are doing something, as it were, not simply thinking something or thinking about something.
Now I can try to explain a little what we are doing. But, it’s like talking about singing. It’s fairly pointless unless you sing or take in the singing of someone else, participate in it. The good part of it is that we are singing here, as it were; that is, we are praying. So whatever it is I have to say, it will speak to a fact we already engage, not to someone’s idea about something none of us knows.
So let us start right there: what are we doing, now?
We are gathered here to celebrate the divine life shared – the life, death, and resurrection – of Jesus Christ. We are also celebrating the Book of Common Prayer; but the only reason we would do this, here in this cathedral, is because the BCP itself is somehow a gracious servant of the life of Christ Jesus . For which we give thanks; and whose service of Christ’s life we are called ourselves to cherish, to uphold, to further. Of course! But how?
Let me divide it all too neatly into three actions: exposure, reception, and conformance.
First of all, as we worship according to the BCP, we are exposed. “Exposure”, is the first action.
You could also call this “offering”, as in self-offering. But I want to make clear that the praying we are doing in the BCP is not the offering of a gift to God: it is the baring of our souls to God’s own self-giving to us. The offering of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” that the BCP mentions as being so central to our worship, is one of exposed proximity – of coming to stand before something in all of our nakedness.
Standing before what? or who? God, of course. As the Letter to the Hebrews today says: here draw we ourselves near “to the throne of grace”, in the most awesome and majestic language possible.
And drawing near, we are being laid bare, you see; “before him” – the living and active Word – “no creature is hidden”, Hebrews says; our hearts are uncovered, the deepest ligatures of our beings are unraveled, and the hidden is brought into the light. We are laid bare, just so that the Word might do its work on us.
And what the BCP gives us, first and foremost of all, are the words Scripture before which we stand, exposed. The words of the Word, you could say – psalms, the law, the prophets, the Gospels. These are just the things that Jesus referred to with the disicples having met some of them on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection: “these are my words which I spoke to you”, he say, “while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” – and so he taught them (Lk. 24:27, 44f.). So he did them, and us.
Abp. Cranmer’s systematic lectionary for the people, around which the BCP was structured and through which daily and weekly the entire Bible was read in public, was truly a “reforming” enterprise that changed the way Christians related to the Scriptures. There it was: the words of the Word spoken to each of us, every day, every week, from Genesis to Revelation; and we standing before them, opened! And not only the lectionary; the entire BCP, in its prayers and canticles, is suffused with Scriptural quotation, reference, and allusion. “You are turning the Bible into your own prayers!”, the Puritans complained, worried that the distinction between God’s words and our own was somehow getting lost in this steady tide of Scripture pounding against our spirits, through which the BCP fundamentally does its work.
But that was the point: the words of the Word must become our words too. Exposure.
So we come to our second action in the BCP: Receiving. The Scriptures of God – the Word spoken to us – is not only spoken but somehow made a part of us, somehow penetrates within us. That is at the center of the BCP’s action. We sit and listen; we kneel and repeat; we stand and utter forth – these words, over and over. That is the effect of the formal ordering of BCP’s worship in its “iterated” force: bit by bit, over time, the words crack open the conscience and the mind and heart; weekly, yearly, over a lifetime – for the BCP is a life-time’s work, not a moment’s -- the ordering of time finally drills itself into a focus on the one act of self-giving that is Jesus Christ: and this is given in the Holy Communion. Here, not simply is the Last Supper remembered, and a few words from the Gospels repeated, but the entire Scriptures are summarized from creation to fall to promise to incarnation and sacrifice to resurrection and Spirit, to Church and eternity.
And we should be clear: one does communion; one does it for the sake of receiving the Word’s own self-offering to us. One exposes oneself to the Word; one lets it make its way within us, and then, only then, does one receive it, like the ground that is prepared for the sowing of God’s seed (Mark 4). It’s a wonderful reality: the Word in its words prepares us for its own reception.
And so to the third action of the BCP’s worship that serves the life of Christ in our midst: conforming.
This one is perhaps the greatest challenge to our age’s expectations and wills, but also the greatest gift. “Conformance” or “conformity”: the word means to take on the form of another, or (and “and”), to take this shape on together with another person. It’s a word with a very specific set of connotations for Anglicans in the late 16th and later 17th centuries: conforming to the laws, to the usage of the Church in worship, yes; but more deeply, conforming to the words of the Word, and doing so together – being “conformist” in a modern sense, “like everyone else”, but actually with everyone else: living in the Word with others. That is the BCP’s version of “conformism”.
The BCP doesn’t itself actually use the word “conform” in this regard (although writers like Coverdale and then Hooker do). But it does speak very frequently of two things that it links: “gathering together” and using the “forms” of the Prayerbook itself. We are always “formed together”; and that forming is ultimately given in forms of “unity” and “concord” and “peace” and finally, of course, the “form of God”, the servant who is Christ. If everyone is exposed together to the two-edged sword of the Word; if everyone endures it sufficiently together to let it pierce and penetrate, listening to its repeated approaches; if everyone is thus one, then together the form of Christ is discerned within the forms of the words of the Word. So that the Lord speaks to the Rich Young Man today, not to me or to you, not just this day or this moment, but to us He speaks these words, together, yesterday and today and tomorrow – no one rises up and leaves, or if they do, there is another day, another prayer, another time for the words of the Word -- for together then and now and again and again, we listen – “,,, if you would be perfect, sell it all and follow me!...” we respond, we pray these words, for we are still here for those who could not hear but now return – then, yes, conformation, conformance, becomes a gift of the Lord. We need each other in this hearing and doing!
Exposure, reception, conformance. That’s the gift the Barundi Anglicans were able to identify to some extent as central to life. Concretely, and also deeply, eternally. And we should celebrate that as we do today; and also care about it.
Everything I’ve just said may lead you, as it does me, to resist multiple revisions of the Prayer Book, or multiple options within it – Form I or Form II, Eucharistic Prayer 4 or 6, A, B, D, and so on. No, conformance implies a basic conformity. But I actually think that – and history bears this out – there is enormous roominess within the conforming body of Christ: BCP culture over the centuries, as we know, offered extraordinary scope in intellectual engagement. From Cranmer to John Donne to Isaac Newton to Hannah More and William Wilberforce, to Evelyn Underhill and Dorothy Sayers to Desmond Tutu. Not merely because of the permissiveness of formalism, has this been the case, but because of the fact that the Word is itself , in the words of Gregory the Great, “like a river, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Moralia, dedicatory epistle). But we must go to the river together, and delve into its current over the course of our lives one with another. And that is the BCP’s great virtue: it guides and guards us into the river of God’s Word with a steady hand.
And to it, the BCP, let me apply the words of Psalm 90 today: “prosper” or establish thou the work of our hands, establish thou it – that is, our coming to your Word, our receiving of it, our conformance to its grace and truth.
The Reverend Dr Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto
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