Friday, March 8, 2013

Wood-Working & Traditional Anglican Worship

When I was still in seminary, I worked for a man who was remodeling his Victorian house. The man had a love for old hand tools and making chairs. As we became friends, he began to share his passion with me. Eventually we went to a five day chair-making course in an old barn in Reading, Pennsylvania. The barn was filled with dusty old tools; there were chickens running loose; in the January cold, the only heat came from a wood stove. On some rickety shaving horses we made the spindles for our chairs.

I went back to seminary classes, and all I could think about was making chairs. Since that time I've had a passion for traditional wood-working. I love to buy old, neglected tools and turn them into something beautiful and usable. I often bring people out to my wood-working shed to show them my old tools, or I show them the chair I made in Reading. I usually get questions like: why do you like these old tools so much? Aren't there new tools that are electric powered and faster and better than these old hand tools? Are you a Luddite? Or do you just have a fetish for the old and antique? None of these is the reason why I use traditional wood-working tools and methods. I use them because they actually work. When a hand tool is properly sharpened and properly used, it feels like an extension of one's own hand, in a way that a machine can rarely if ever do. 

My love for traditional Anglican worship is similar. There is so much about traditional Anglican worship that I love: daily morning and evening prayer, altars attached to the wall, traditional language in addressing God, the 'meaty' content of Anglican hymns, Holy Communion using the inimitable words of Thomas Cranmer. So whether it is this, 

Or this,

I find myself increasing devoted to this centuries old yet ever new form of traditional Anglican worship. Again some might ask, aren't there modern liturgies that are clearer, more accessible, more relevant, with wider appeal? Maybe I like traditional worship because I was an English major? Or perhaps I am just an Anglophile? But these are not my reasons. Quite simply, I love traditional Anglican worship because it works. The Book of Common Prayer holds in tandem two central truths of Christian faith. It tells us, namely, who we are and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. These both are things we need to hear clearly and regularly, and the Book of Common Prayer does a superlative job of precisely that.

The first truth the prayer book sets before us is a sober and empirically honest evaluation of humanity apart from God. The prayer book says quite frankly that "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves." It also does not white-wash human sin. Take these devastating words from the confession at Morning and Evening Prayer: "Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us." This honest evaluation of human nature and our condition is something every one needs to hear and be reminded of. As humans, we are stuck in the mire of sin, and we need to hear that simply trying a little harder will not work: we need a savior to lift us up. In relation to sin, the prayer book's clarity on the human condition is the equivalent of the first step in AA: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable."

Just as the Bible does not leave us solely with this grim evaluation of human nature, so too the Book of Common Prayer--the Bible prayed--does not leave worshipers without hope: a Savior has come to rescue us in our need and brokenness. The prayer book frequently dwells on God's great love for humans as shown principally and definitively in Jesus Christ. Among my favorite words of the Communion service are the following: "All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." When the revisers of the current prayer book took to editing this prayer for contemporary use, they removed what they thought were the redundancies of this passage. They missed the point however: as humans in need of real help, we need to hear over and over again the assurance that we have been saved. It is finished. Our security and salvation lie not in ourselves but in the one who has offered himself selflessly and completely.

So, if you want to be a Christian your whole life long, there is perhaps no better way than in traditional Anglicanism. Because it works. The Book of Common Prayer gives a form to set apart the major events of life--birth, marriage, death--in the context of God's grace. It also provides a form in the regular services of Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer to be grounded daily in the fundamental truths of Christian faith, especially of the human need for God and God's great love for humanity shown in the cross of Christ.

Last year, my wife sent me to Pittsburgh for a week to make another chair with my friend. This time we made the chair in the basement of his Victorian home. We took things that looked like pieces of firewood


and turned them into parts of a chair.

But if you're going to do this you need a good sharp draw knife:

We also took something like this:

And made it into spindles.

But if you're going to do this, you will need a sharp and well-turned spoke shave.

After a week of hard work, occasional frustration and fun, I came out of my friend's basement with this:

In the same way, if you are going to make a Christian, the Book of Common Prayer and traditional Anglican worship works. It offers a beautiful and ordered method for showing us who we truly are and how much greater God is than our sin.

Hand tools take time to learn and become skilled at. It requires instruction and patience and endurance, but when you've learned how to use them and you have a sharp tool, they work amazingly. In the church today there is a generation of Episcopalians like myself that grew up with modern liturgy. There are also significant numbers of Evangelicals seeking for some kind of liturgical worship. For both of these groups, traditional Anglican worship may seem foreign and difficult to use at first. With time, patience and encouragement, it is one of the richest and most effective tools for shaping and molding Christians, their whole life long.


  1. Common Prayer really does work for this Evangelical! Thanks for the post.

  2. What a poor opinion of people you have without any real honest evaluation of humanity but just a belief in a ‘holy’ book. I believe we are all generally good people at heart without any god required. We are perfectly capable of improving ourselves without the need to think we’re all filled with your imaginary sin.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I concede one point to you: no one willingly pursues an evil, as Socrates pointed out. We always think that we are pursuing after some good--for example, the habitual liar believes the lies will be for his benefit.

      In the end, however, the belief that people are basically good cannot stand up to the stark record of the 20th century in which millions were murdered in the name of godless movements such as fascism and communism. Furthermore, on a personal level such a belief system has very little to say when, for example, a child becomes very sick, or someone faces divorce, or someone feels unable to resist a temptation which they know is killing them. The Christian Gospel contains a sober and honest evaluation of human nature together with the promise of new life and redemption. This has much to say to every one who realizes that life is like a battle or a trial.

  3. Greetings from New Zealand! I am so glad I happened on your blog and church site. The combination of old ways of working wood, with an increasing love for the historic form of Anglican faith, and theological training, is something we share in common. Up until 18months ago, for about eight years I worked fulltime as a "green woodworker" making Windsor and folk chairs from my historic workshop, which alas was sold a while back. The integration of these strands in your life is an inspiration. James