Thursday, November 3, 2016

Reformation Sunday, Celebration of Common Prayer

GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words, which we [will hear] this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honour and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This morning, we are using the liturgy for the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion from the English Book of Common Prayer first authorized in 1662 and still the authorized version of the Book of Common Prayer in England today. One of the reasons that this date was settled on to use this liturgy is because it falls on what some Protestant groups call Reformation Sunday. On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and it is this date that is usually remembered as the start of Reformation. In posting those theses, Luther was inviting debate about a host of different church practices which he perceived were at variance with the Bible. In the opening theses, Luther argued that “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent', He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of [confession]. . . [and] the pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God.” Luther was protesting the teaching of the church that forgiveness could only be obtained through making a confession to a priest and that the priest was given power to forgive and remit the sin (or not). Before Luther started to see these inconsistencies between the church's teachings and the Bible, he had been a monk who was very devout, making numerous, almost daily, confessions, and always lacking assurance of his salvation. He was gripped by fear and guilt. In his later theological terminology, the monk Luther was imprisoned by the Law, God's righteous ordinances which invariably found him and find us lacking. What Luther the monk had not heard, and the discovery (or rediscovery) that he would make, that would rock Europe and the established church, was the teaching of St. Paul that what saves us is not works of the law, but faith and trust in our Lord Jesus. The Law reveals us as a sinners—a fact most of us already know, but the Gospel reveals God's gracious will towards law-breakers and sinners. Thus, as Paul says elsewhere, the Gospel is the good news “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” Put directly, God accepts us not for the list of our merits but by his own free-will and grace in Christ. To apply it to the human realm, do you love their children for what they do (or fail to do) or because you have made a choice to love them? The teaching of the late medieval church so clouded this truth that God appeared to be a father who loved us only when good. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus, however, is really about God's gracious love for sinners, and his will to renew and restore them. Luther's rediscovery of Paul burst across Europe like a flash of light: in Geneva, a young lawyer was so struck by this good news that he would change professions and go on to write a systematic theology according to the rediscovered doctrine and a nearly complete commentary on the all the books of the Bible. This lawyer of course was John Calvin. In England, there wasn't a central figure like Martin Luther or John Calvin, but the Reformation took no less of a decisive turn. The archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer undertook to develop a liturgy that took into account this rediscovery of Paul's doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. There were a number of facets to this undertaking: first of all this liturgy would be not just for priests and monks—it was intended for all of the people because all needed to hear the message of forgiveness and new life. Therefore, Cranmer put the prayers and readings in the vernacular. In most cases he didn't start from scratch, but took the Medieval service books, prayers and services from the continental Reformers, and edited them into a single book of services: the Book of Common Prayer. Next to the Authorized King James Bible and Shakespeare, it stands as a touchstone of English literature and the highmark of English piety and religion. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1549 after the death of Henry VIII during the short reign of his son Edward VI. Revising it to conform more thoroughly with the principles of the Reformation, a new more Protestant edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1552. After an interval of its being outlawed under the reign of Mary, popularized as Bloody Mary, it was reintroduced with some slight modifications upon the enthronement of Elizabeth I in 1559, and it was once more slightly edited in 1662 and has been the official Book of Common Prayer in England ever since. The first settlers in America in Virginia used that 1559 Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, but the 1662 was one that traveled all over the world as the British Empire spread. It became the parent book of all other local adaptations of the Book of Common Prayer in such diverse places as Uganda, America, and Australia. There is a copy of the 1662 prayer book at historic Christ Church in Philadelphia where the references to the English King were crossed out on July 4, 1776, prefiguring the ways in which the prayer book would be adapted as it went from country to country.

The legacy of the 1662 prayer book is strongly evident in our 1928 Book of Common Prayer which was the last American prayer book to take its immediate predecessor as a base text. There are a number of deficiencies, in my opinion, in the 1979 prayer book, even while there some significant contributions it has made. Whatever its virtues or deficiencies, there can be little arguing with the fact that 1979 prayer book presents a very different form and content to common prayer than the 1928 or 1662 prayer books, though the '79 can be used in such a way as to reflect the earlier tradition. I hope that many of the prayers we say today we ring a note a familiarity and consonance for you. It's a rich and beautiful tradition from the Collect for Purity, the Comfortable Words, and the Prayer of Humble Access. A secular author, James Wood, writing in a review for The New Yorker for the 350th anniversary of the 1662 prayer book a few years ago had this to say,

Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic and grandly alienated, the words of the Prayer Book are notable for their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this quality “pithiness”; I would add “coziness” or “comfortability.” The Prayer Book was a handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood, and its job was to replace and improve the ancient collective rites of worship that bound people together in the English Catholic Church.

From the standpoint of faith, we can and should be thankful for the prayer book's simplicity and clarity on the matters of faith: it tells us who are: those who from time to time (or to put it into contemporary idiom again and again) have sinned against the Lord. But it also tells us of God's great and unfailing love for us. Again and again we hear of him whose property is always to have mercy. John Wesley, who is credited with founding Methodism but was actually a loyal son of the Church of England, had this to say about the 1662 prayer book: “I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” And might I add, though we're not going to use the 1662 every Sunday, our regular Sunday liturgy resonates with the same or similar prayers, and so let us celebrate and use this heritage of common prayer that it might express the living faith of the dead. We use it not for reasons of nostalgia nor because we are anglo-philes, but because it works!

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