Praying for the parish is more important than praying for the diocese

For our Bishop, and for all the clergy and people, let us pray to the Lord. 
Lord, have mercy - The Prayers of the People, Form I, TEC BCP 1979.

Strengthen N our bishop and all your Church in the service of Christ, that those who confess your name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world - Forms of Intercession 1, Common Worship.

Lord of your people:
strengthen your Church in all the world ...
renew the life of this diocese ...
bless ... our bishop, and build us up in faith and love - Forms of Intercession Two, CofI BCP 2004.

There is a quite striking contrast between petitions for the Church in the intercessions of most contemporary Anglican Eucharistic rites, and the Prayer for the Church Militant in the Prayer Book tradition (1662, Ireland 1926, PECUSA 1928, Scotland 1929, Canada 1962).

Such contemporary intercessions reflect the rather new emphasis on the diocese as the fundamental ecclesiological unit, what is meant by 'the local church'.  As if to secure this emphasis, such intercessions omit any reference to the parish, the means whereby we routinely experience what it is to be the Church.

It is not as if, however, the Prayer Book's tradition Prayer for the Church Militant omits reference to the wider Church:

beseeching thee to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord ... Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and Curates ... And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace.

But what is also significant is what is added to these petitions, and what is absent from most contemporary forms of intercession:

and especially to this Congregation here present; that with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

It is a prayer for the life of the parish.  What is expressed here is the rich Anglican emphasis on the parish, an emphasis being retrieved and renewed in contemporary Anglican theological reflection.  As John Milbank (2009) has emphasised, it is through the parish - not the diocese - that place is caught up in the religion of the Incarnation, in which we fundamentally encounter the Christian Faith not as "disincarnate" concept.  Similarly, Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison (2010) have stated:

The parish through its whole life is empowered by liturgical praxis, and by the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Christian body, which catches it up into the Divine life ... The parish church celebrates place and history precisely in the same gesture by which she sees beyond them to the One who transcends both space and time, and yet came to dwell within them.

Likewise, Andrew Rumsey (2017):

The parish is the primary embodiment of Anglican social space ... the parish has encapsulated an approach to Christian faith that emphasizes narrative 'belonging' as much as individual conviction ... What kind of place is the parish? As a fusion of territory and tradition it represents ... a kind of belonging - a school for belonging, even - whose rich theological significance the vagaries of time, place, and politics do not diminish, but rather ground in truly incarnate form.  

In other words, 'contemporary' liturgy reflects more the theological assumptions and cultural mores of the 60s, than it does the renewed contemporary theology of the parish and renewed cultural expressions of local identity and local belonging.

What the Prayer for the Church Militant captures - and what contemporary intercessions usually entirely overlook - is that it is in and through the parish that we share in the community of prayer, word, and sacrament, that we "hear and receive thy holy Word"; that it is in the parish that birth, marriage, and death, that neighbourliness, domestic life and civic duties are blessed and sanctified, that we grow "in holiness and righteousness all the days of [our] life".  It is, then, the parish that is truly the centre and focus of the Church's life, the centre and focus which the bishop and diocese serve, guard, and protect.

The 'Homily for Repairing and Keeping Clean of Churches' gives wonderful expression to this vision of the parish church:

And shall we be so mindful of our common base houses, deputed to so low occupying, and be forgetful toward that house of God, wherein be ministered the words of our eternal salvation, wherein be intreated the Sacraments and mysteries of our redemption? The fountain of our regeneration is there presented to us; the partaking of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ is there offered unto us; and shall we not esteem the place where so heavenly things be handled?


This should lead us to recognise the rather impoverished nature of the petitions for the Church in many forms of intercession in contemporary Anglican eucharistic rites.  Failing to pray for the parish, they fail to intercede for the place and community in which the Christian Faith is embodied, in which our participation in the mystery of our redemption is made present and lived out.  And they so fail, even as a renewed and deepened theology of the parish has come to the fore, and as the culture is rediscovering the gift and blessing of the local.

All of which brings us back to the wisdom of the Prayer for the Church Militant in the Prayer Book tradition.  There is a much deeper resonance, a greater and more joyful meaning in praying the words "and especially to this Congregation here present", a recognition that it is here, in the life of the parish, amidst Holy Table and Font, pulpit and reading desk, in this community, that we experience and are caught up in, and called to live out, the gracious truth and reality of the Faith.

Comments

  1. 1979 does not require the Forms of Prayers of the People in Rite II to be used verbatim, thus the descriptor "Forms". I've attended Episcopal/Anglican churches across the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia/NZ. Most of them use a modern liturgy. Seldom have I found a church that does not add intercessions for itself, its mission and ministries, its clergy and members, etc to its Sunday liturgies. Praying for one's local church comes naturally. Praying for one's diocese, however, does not come naturally in the significant number of Episcopal churches that believe our polity is or should be congregational and act accordingly... a problem that perhaps didn't exist in 1662. I observe that many such churches still use 1662 or something similar.

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    1. Indeed, there is not a requirement to use such forms verbatim, but this does not lessen the significance of such forms quite deliberately *not* referencing prayer for the parish. What is more, over decades, with such forms guiding intercessions, prayer for the diocese becomes a focus, which should not be the case.

      Also significant is *how* the parish is prayed for. The classical Prayer Book tradition provides a theologically rich and resonant prayer for the parish: far too many mentions of the parish in contemporary intercessions are a rather bland list of activities, lacking theological focus.

      This matter is not an issue of polity, as episcopal polity is clearly determined by Ordinal, Canons, and Constitutions. Rather, it is about recognising historic Anglicanism's rich, resonant and vibrant understanding of the parish church as the place and community in which God's saving acts in Christ are encountered and experienced. And this is why prayer for the parish should have a greater focus than prayer for the diocese.

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