Common Prayer in an uncommon time

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, it has been noticeable that in many Anglican circles there has been a corresponding liturgical crisis.  How is worship to be sustained when churches are closed and public worship suspended?  What about the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist? Should priests be celebrating the Eucharist 'privately'? How do people participate in streamed or recorded worship?  What liturgies should be used for streamed or recorded worship? What about the UK government's moratorium on Baptisms? What about funerals when restrictions require only a minimal service?

At least part of the reason for the liturgical crisis has been the loss over previous decades of Common Prayer.  Classical editions of The Book of Common Prayer provide a means of sustaining the Church's life of prayer and worship in a way often absent from contemporary Anglican liturgies.  Two very practical considerations can be given at the outset.  Firstly, until late 20th century liturgical revision, it was quite normal for regular Anglican worshippers to possess their own copy of the BCP.  Domestic access to the Prayer Book was common.  The proliferation of liturgical books and the use of sheets (often necessitated by the numerous options provided in newer books) has, in many places, broken the custom of individual and family ownership of the liturgical text.  The absence of a common, shared liturgical text in the home impedes domestic sharing in worship at this time.

Secondly, one volume of Common Prayer, containing the common liturgies of the Church, facilitated a means of sharing in public worship even when absent from it.  Compare this with the multi-volume Common Worship or the Church of Ireland's BCP 2004 with, in first editions, three versions of the daily, and now four (undermining any meaningful sense of 'common').  Such multiplicity does not aid the ability of households and individuals to share in worship at this time.

Turning to the text of Common Prayer itself, it is also worth considering how it provides a means of addressing many of the liturgical issues raised by the current context.  For the purposes of this post, I will be using the Church of Ireland BCP 1926, but the points have reference to most classical Prayer Book versions.

1. Morning and Evening Prayer: as the normative services of the Church, they provide a balance of confession, praise, and prayer, together with sustained reading of Holy Scripture.  No particular expertise is required for leading the service in a domestic context.  There are no numerous options to be navigated.  These offices combine simplicity with weighty seriousness.  If they had been maintained as normative Anglican public worship, they could have sustained domestic worship through this time.

2. The Litany: amidst great anxiety and fear, the Litany provides a means of commending all aspects of our shared life to God.  It delivers us from a reliance upon our own meagre resources, resources further stretched precisely because we are anxious and fearful.

3. Private Eucharists?: - I have a deep respect for some of those now urging 'private' celebrations of the Eucharist (that is, priests celebrating the Sacrament alone).  However, put simply, this cannot be reconciled with classical Anglican practice, grounded in the patristic vision of the Eucharist as an inherently communal act.  What is more, when streamed or recorded, this undermines the physicality of the Sacrament: "take, eat ... drink this".  This "overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament".  As Jewel declared of patristic practice, "Neither was there any Christian at that time which did communicate alone, whiles other looked on".

And there shall be no celebration of the Lord's Supper, except there be three (or two at the least) of the people to communicate with the Priest.

4. Ante-Communion: this should have been a time when priests and dispersed congregations re-discovered the noble Anglican tradition of Ante-Communion.

Upon Sundays and Holy-days (if there be no Communion) all shall be said as appointed up to the Prayer For the whole state of Christ's Church militant here in earth.

Necessarily fasting from reception of the holy Sacrament, the Ante-Communion provides a means of feasting upon the Word, the Prayer Book's ancient Western eucharistic lectionary providing a particularly suitable focus on what David Curry terms "the fullness of saving doctrine": this is indeed a time for such focus.  The Ante-Communion also enables us to offer in a concentrated form the Church's high priestly prayer for Church and world in the Prayer for the Church Militant.  It can also be meaningfully said privately by priests, enabling them to continue the Church's cycle of attention to the Word and offering of solemn prayer, without the dubious theology of private Eucharists.

4. Spiritual Communion: even more dubious than private Eucharists is the theology of so-called 'virtual consecration' (yes, it has become a 'thing'). 'Virtual consecration' reduces the Sacrament to disembodied words and individualistic acts.  Neither practice - and the disordering brought to the Church's sacramental life - is needed.  We are fasting from reception of the holy Sacrament, but not from feeding on our Lord Jesus Christ.

But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, the Curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor, he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul's health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.

5. Baptism: BCP 1926 has provision for The Ministration of Private Baptism and The Order for Receiving Into The Congregation Children Which Have Been Previously Baptized.  Both orders were omitted from the BCP 2004, an omission which is now revealed to be careless. Simple, private ministration of Holy Baptism may be necessary through these days.  After the crisis passes, receiving into the congregation those who have received the Sacrament will be a witness to the grace of God at work even in the midst of grave danger.

And let them not doubt, but that the Child so baptized is lawfully and sufficiently baptized, and ought not to be baptized again.

6. Funerals: it will be the case in coming days that the Church will be called upon to bury the dead in difficult circumstances, often with the liturgy conducted entirely at the graveside.  The Prayer Book tradition's Burial of the Dead makes no assumption that the funeral liturgy will be conducted in the parish church:

The Priest and Clerks, meeting the Corpse at the entrance of the Churchyard, and going before it, either into the Church, or towards the Grave ...

It is also a time when the solemn words of the traditional liturgy should not be, as is often the case in contemporary funeral liturgies, optional.  It is a time to hear "In the midst of life we are in death", not to have these words - with their recognition of painful reality - set aside for something less challenging.  And it is because of this painful reality that the Church's proclamation of the hope of resurrection at the graveside becomes all the more urgent:

in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mindful of what could occur if some scenarios come to pass, there may also be need for a prayer appended to the burial rite in BCP 1926 (a similar provision also found in the Prayer Book as Proposed in 1928), which probably drew on the experience of military chaplains in the First World War:

When they come to the Grave, if the Burial Ground is not consecrated, the Minister shall say, 

O LORD Jesus Christ, who by thy burial didst sanctify an earthly sepulchre; Vouchsafe, we beseech thee to bless and hallow this grave, that it may be a peaceful resting place for the body of thy servant; through thy mercy, O Blessed Saviour, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

No such provision is to be found in the contemporary funeral service in BCP 2004.

In an uncommon time, much contemporary Anglican liturgy is being tested and found wanting.  Abandoning Common Prayer for a multiplicity of rites, forsaking the normative nature of Morning and Evening Prayer as public worship, forgetting the Litany and the practice of Ante-Communion, a lack of confidence in classical Anglican Eucharistic doctrine, and a failure to make provision for pastoral circumstances wrongly assumed to be no longer relevant have all combined to create a liturgical crisis.  This need not be so.  Common Prayer in the classical Prayer Book tradition could sustain the Church's life of prayer and its ministrations at this time, providing for simple yet weighty domestic worship, assuring us that we continue to feed on Our Lord Jesus Christ, providing rites for demanding pastoral circumstances, and avoiding both the theology-lite and liturgy-lite exposed and found wanting by the Covid-19 crisis. 


Popular Posts