Monday, December 26, 2011

Rowan and the Prayer Book: A Puzzling Christmas Message

Crusty Old Dean spent Christmas Day traveling, flying back to see family in the Boston area. Sitting in the airport, flicking through email, COD came across the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Sermon. Always looking for a challenge, COD decided to see how Rowan's impenetrable prose could obscure the Christmas message.

Actually, COD found himself more or less pleased with the Archbishop's message. There was, however, something which COD found to be a strange choice. A good bulk of the sermon, which can be found here, was a reflection on words and questions, building upon John's Gospel's use of the Word (Logos) in reference to Jesus and the Incarnation. COD loves the Prologue to John as an Nativity gospel. COD finds John 1:1-18 more meaningful than the indiscriminate mashup of the incompatable stories in Matthew and Luke, because the Prologue to John focuses on the *fact* of the Incarnation and its transformation of creation rather than the treacly images of cooing babies and mooing cows that are trotted out.

The Archbishop also related this to many of the contemporary issues Britain is struggling with, reflecting on the riots earlier this year and questions of social and economic injustice -- words which, while primarily reflecting on the British context, could just as easily be ones challenging much of American and Western culture.

So far, so good. COD found himself beginning to relax.

But then Rowan went Rowan on us, as he is wont to do. In the midst of this reflection, he then chose an interesting metaphor for words and language: an extended sidebar on not just the Book of Common Prayer, but the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, celebrating its 350th anniversary next year. He concludes that sidebar by saying:

"The Prayer Book was once the way our society found words to respond to the Word, to say who and where they were in answer to God's question. Those who prayed the Prayer Book, remember, included those who abolished the slave trade and put an end to child labour, because of what they had learned in this book and in their Bibles about the honour of God and of God's children. They knew their story; they knew how to give an answer for themselves, how to join up the muddle of their experience in a coherent pattern by relating it to the unchanging truth and grace of God. That's why the coming year's celebration is not about a museum piece."

This is where COD's jaw fell. Huh? I nearly sputtered openly in the Delta terminal. Making the Prayer Book the ground for all of these actions? How could a sermon which started out so right take such a strange sidebar? Rowan, as COD has thought for years, has some truly terrible communications people around him. This is a staggering, mind-blowing oversimplification. The Prayer Book was not a way people "found" to respond to the Word! The 1549 book was legislated by Parliament, enforced by the force of arms in the west country, and people were fined for absenting themselves from its services. COD found his concern focusing in a couple of areas:

1) The liberal Catholic, Christian Socialist, and Anglo-Catholic forays into social justice and social ministry in the late 1800s, those who "put an end to child labour" were in large part inspired by the reclamation of the Catholic heritage of Anglicanism, which was abetted by the inconsistencies of the Prayer Book (that is, there was nothing to prevent imposing a solemn high mass with incense on the rubrics of the Prayer Book). Charles Gore described Lux Mundi as "Essays in the Incarnation," not "Reflections on the 1662 Prayer Book." F.D. Maurice's subtitle to "Kingdom of Christ" was "Hints respecting the principles, constitution, and ordinances of the catholic church." God's grace in the incarnation transformed all elements of society, which the church makes known through word and sacrament; this is why people like Charles Kingsley could lead the fight for sanitation reform in London and the Episcopal Church, the church of privilege in the 1800s, could take the lead in the labor movement. The Prayer Book was a means, not a source, of this process of transformation. The source was the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, which, coincidentally, is what we celebrate on Christmas, not the Prayer Book's celebration of that celebration.

2) Those who "abolished the slave trade" were evangelicals motivated by a conversion experience and understandings of how the regenerate person was to act in the world -- the Prayer Book was complementary to this, far from the cause.

3) The 1662 BCP is far from normative in the current Church of England; there are a variety of authorized liturgies in place and a dizzying variety in modes of worship in different parishes. Granted, COD is far from an expert, but has been to the UK a number of times, been to Sunday worship in over a dozen parishes, and not once was the 1662 BCP used. COD heard the liturgy which was half in Latin in one place and another which was prayer and praise projected onto a screen, and a lot of Common Worship resources, but no 1662. Then again, COD has not been to a funeral, which may be where most people in England actually hear the 1662 BCP, since no one goes to church on Sunday morning anymore (the average Sunday attendance of the C of E is not much higher than that of the Episcopal Church) but they still do a lot of weddings and funerals.

4) The 1662 BCP is being co-opted as a source of authority and foundation for schismatic Anglicans. The 2008 "Jerusalem Statement"of the Global Anglican Future Conference, meant to be an alternative to the Lambeth Conference by conservative bishops in Africa, Asia, and schismatic bishops in North America, called the 1662 BCP "a true and authoritative standard of worship and prayer." Is Rowan knowingly, or unknowingly, providing a dog whistle, a nudge, yet another accommodation and appeasement to those conservatives?

5) Is romanticizing a past that no longer exists all that the Church of England has left, at least in terms of its leadership and vision? In its criticism of England's veto of a treaty to provide greater financial integration, in order to save the euro, the Guardian newspaper in the UK lambasted the Tory party for being wrong on all of the major issues of the 20th century: resisting decolonialization in Ireland and India, appeasement of Hitler, and so on. COD found himself wondering if the C of E is the modern incarnation of that: that it is making itself irrelevant on British society by being wrong on where Christianity is right now, by bowing to conservatives on women bishops, human sexuality, and same sex blessings.

Of all things, in all times, the Archbishop is choosing romanticization of the Prayer Book as something which binds Anglicans together, indeed, which used to bind Britain together? After all, those people who abolished the slave trade also did not give full civil rights to Jews and Catholics for another 25 years. The Prayer Book was as much a part of exclusion and establishment as everything else the Archbishop describes -- indeed, the 1662 Book is as much an act of vengeance against the interregnum as anything else.

The celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the Prayer Book may not be commemorating a museum piece, as the Archbishop says -- instead it may be another movement in the continued slide of the Church of England into becoming a museum piece itself.

Merry Christmas from COD.

1 comment:

  1. Certainly without the historical information (not being an historian as is COD) but my only-M.Div-informed opinion of said message was strikingly similar to PhD's. The Queen had a lovely message. Had never realized she took her faith quite so seriously before listening to it. You might wonder why I listened to the Queen's Christmas Message, and it is WAY too long a story.

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