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Why common prayer 1?

handsIt was inevitable, as I hinted, that my post on chaos about liturgy rules and agreements would result in questioning why have these agreements at all? Why have common prayer? And in one version of the question: can’t we have some flexibility in liturgy?

Let’s deal with the flexibility question first.

It’s a straw man. Good liturgy, by its very nature, is flexible. It is not cooky-cutter/cloning.

What happens when there is little to no liturgical study, training, and formation? Then, when people hear or read the word “liturgy”, what springs to mind is The Book of Common Prayer – only one way to do things, etc, inflexibility…

As I wrote in my book Celebrating Eucharist (Chapter 1):

Services in The Book of Common Prayer have often been likened to “meals on wheels.” They were centrally prepared, and then warmed and dished up locally. One began at the beginning of the service, reading most of it until one reached the end of it. Services in A New Zealand Prayer Book are more like “frozen peas,” or maybe a basket of groceries and a recipe book. A core of essential material is provided with some further resources, other content is added locally. Many will be surprised that the obligatory material from any of the eucharistic liturgies (pages 404-510) takes only about six minutes to recite. Most of the rest of the service is locally chosen. The quality of the meal is now much more dependent on the local “cook”!

The idea that liturgy equals inflexibility, rigorously unhuman ritual that makes no real connections with real people is so deeply ingrained that a discussion about lack of clarity about agreement on “common” prayer is in danger if it does not address the assumption/prejudice/misunderstanding that liturgy = inflexibility. The problems with the word “liturgy” are not dissimilar to the word “God”. The word has been so abused and misused that it is almost impossible in many places to use it usefully. I continue to use the word “God” and the word “liturgy” – conscious that I am misunderstood when I use those words.

In New Zealand the decision was made to place a lot of the options and choices within the main text in the Prayer Book. In a Eucharistic Liturgy in the Prayer Book the word “may” is often to be found three times in the rubrics (instructions) on a page! Yet “may” is often treated more like “must” (three greetings; three collects…). Bishops and diocesan services may not even give leadership in good modelling. We are so verbally glutted in the over-cluttered “gathering” vestibule that I then regularly see a reduction of what we (in theory) have been preparing for – hearing what the Spirit is saying to us, the church, in God’s word in the scriptures! Often this is reduced to merely a single reading!

What is happening is that people are replicating, cookie-cuttering, cloning the Book of Common Prayer “meals on wheels” approach with contemporary liturgy, starting at the beginning and basically using everything in the text until they reach the end. Hence, it is totally understandable (tragically) when people hear the word “liturgy” that they think inflexibility.

To be continued…

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11 thoughts on “Why common prayer 1?”

  1. David Goodstadt

    From a Catholic perspective one of the strengths of common liturgical norms in the Latin rite are that it expresses the people coming together as one in voice and action. If we don’t do this then why do we need to gather together to pray?
    I find that there is enough freedom in the norms to allow reflective flexibility without indulging in trite simplification.
    Outside of the liturgical celebrations then there is even more flexibility.

    1. David, we are on the same page. There is flexibility in the actual rite (but not so much that it ceases to be common prayer), and the clergy are well trained, formed, and have academically studied liturgy so that they can lead appropriately. Blessings.

  2. Because liturgy expresses and teaches doctrine, I agree with you that ministers (and anyone else reading services) need to have good training in liturgy. Further, ministers need to have enough confidence in their understanding of liturgy to be able to discern between good and bad liturgy.

    The present situation that you lament seems to be due, in most part, to changes to liturgy being driven by concerns over ‘relevance’, ‘inclusiveness’, and ‘seekers’ rather than a wish to better express our orthodox Biblical faith through meaningful common prayer.

  3. I remember when I attended my first “Community Eucharist” at theological college I was surprised by how “minimalist” the service was, and also by how much of it was sung. It was, I must confess, my first experience of a “liturgical renewal” liturgy done well. And all that was necessary was to select judiciously (based on sound principles) from the various options in the approved book (the Canadian Book of Alternative Services).

    Perhaps it would not be otiose to give the running order here as an example of the kind of thing that can be done. (NB: this was always on a weekday, so only two readings.)

    Before the service: announcements by the coordinator that week; music director rehearses any unfamiliar or difficult music.

    Silent reflection
    Bell rung, all stand
    Opening greeting (The Grace of our Lord…)
    Opening hymn
    Collect (intoned by presider)
    Epistle, all sit
    (one minute of silent reflection, begun and ended with a bell)
    Responsorial Psalm (cantor with congregational refrain)
    Gradual Hymn, all stand
    Gospel Acclamation (cantor with congregational refrain, using one of four familiar Alleluias)
    Acclamation reprise
    Homily, all sit
    (one minute of silent reflection, begun and ended with a bell)
    Prayers of the People (sung with familiar congregational response, all standing)
    Exchange of Peace
    Offertory hymn (preparation of the table, procession of bread and wine)
    Prayer over the gifts (presider)
    Eucharistic prayer (intoned in full by presider, both before and after the congregational Sanctus)
    Lord’s Prayer (sung by all to an invariable tune)
    Fraction sentence and response
    Song at breaking of the bread (one of five possibilities, all known by heart)
    Reception of communion
    All remain standing until all have received
    Two minutes of silent reflection (begun and ended with a bell)
    Post-communion Prayer (standing)

    Every Christian community using modern liturgical resources (parish, chapel, school, etc.) needs, in addition to the books, some kind of Customary. The purpose of the many options in the books is not so that the liturgy can change from week to week, according to the whims of the presider, music director, or liturgy committee, but so that the community can craft an order of worship that meets its needs and into which (and within which) it can grow and flourish. In the service described above, the weekly “coordinator” (a student) would have to select three appropriate hymns, a Sanctus and “song at the breaking of the bread”. Our books fortunately spare us the agony of deciding between a smorgasbord of orations and readings.

    1. Thanks, Jesse. As so often with your comments, what you write is more akin to deserving its own post. I wrote previously of following not dissimilar principles in a parish, varying seasonally. You also remind us of the adage – we do not sing at the liturgy, the liturgy is sung. Blessings.

  4. I tend to move around a bit (while staying within the Anglican tradition). At most churches I have joined / visited, I usually recognise the 2nd Order communion service from the APBA (the current Aussie prayer book). The services I have most enjoyed are where the priest has dared to do something different within the framework of the service rather than blindly following the service (at which point I know where everything is except the Confession & Lord’s Prayer which both have multiple locations).

    One question for the Aussie clergy reading this. Why do churches not use the 1st or 3rd order of service? I have seen the 1st order used once (during Lent (and it was effective)). I have never seen the 3rd order been used.


  5. Hi; having read your article over a couple of times I’m making the following assumptions and please correct if I’m wrong. 1/your Prayer Book came out in 1992; 2/ it is *the* Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in NZ, no resorting to the previous edition allowed.
    (I’m mentioning this because the Anglican Ch. of Canada did something similar in ’75? – but with some significant differences.
    But now I have to go for Work,some Food, and the Dentist.
    I guess it’s Sunday down there? and winter, too? so I’ll have to wait for a reply? Patience is a virtue, I’m told.
    The peace of the Lord be with you.

  6. I guess it was from putting two perhaps unrelated points together; NZ prayer Book 20 Anniversary, and the reference to (paraphrase: ‘six minutes of obligatory material in the whole service’) – that of course being in the quoted part from your book.
    The final assumption is that you are in NZ in spite of your allusion to BCP 1928.(Which is ECUSA?… isn’t it?)

    So what did happen 20 years ago – my date of 1992 – with your Prayer Book? and was it a ‘mandatory’ change or what?

    1. Charlie, our Prayer Book is 1989 – you’ll see that in the link you refer to. It is alternative to BCP1662. BCP1928 is a revision that failed in CofE, but NZ authorised some of the revisions in that CofE-prepared book here. Blessings.

  7. Ah! gotcha! as our friends just across the Border would say ?!

    Our ‘official’ one is c.1962 Ang.Ch.of Can. updated – a bit from 1662 to acknowledge existence of Dominions; Canada, NZ, and that big one nearby you
    (some sort of prison-colony, isn’t it? – rabbits and ‘roos). Anyway, our BAS came out in ’75 and *in spite* of what was **Clearly** **said** !! in the intro. it seems to have been regarded as ‘the new Prayer Book’. The ‘old one’s’ use seems to be going downhill by attrition; Eucharist relegated to 8:00 on Sunday (BAS – main service.)

    Speaking of which I have to scoot off for our choir director’s 9-ish ‘impromtu’ – choir rehearsal. (By Order = ‘impromtu’) maybe 9am is too early for me…

    BTW: any ideas on how to change her mind on post-communion piano medley pla yed fff …

    sigh… 🙁

    peace to all

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