Posts Tagged ‘book of common prayer’

From the website of my parish, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore, Maryland:

We understand that the life of faith, and life in general, is filled with both hope and skepticism.  For that reason we want our communal life at Emmanuel to be honest and provocative. Services and sermons are rooted both in tradition and in the real world, the spirit is joyful and fun, and the congregation is warm and welcoming.  We believe our spiritual life is marked by the following characteristics.

Liturgical/Biblical. Anglican spirituality is rooted in communal daily prayer (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayer, Compline) as laid out in The Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican way of praying tends to have structure and to be shaped by the Scriptures and a prayerful meditation on the psalms.

Communal.  Communal prayer comes before and shapes personal prayer. Prayer is seen as an activity that connects us to God, to each other, and to the world around us. Communal prayer is part of daily, weekly and yearly rhythms and both surrounds and informs community gatherings and meetings in which decisions are made.

Sacramental. We see the world, itself, as sacramental and therefore capable of mediating the grace of God. We are centered on the two primary sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist along with other sacraments: confirmation, holy matrimony, reconciliation, unction, and ordination.

Incarnational. We emphasize the incarnation, God’s entry into human life and history. Accordingly,  we have an earthy spirituality that affirms the goodness of life and the created world and believes that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary.

Mystical. We experience union with God as happening over time, bit by bit through a journey aided by spiritual discipline and prayer. Such a belief is consistent with the description of spiritual progress found in the mystics.

Comprehensive. We believe that truth is to be found in the tension between opposites. We therefore affirm both the sacred and the secular, the material and the non-material, the mind and the heart, the transcendent and the intimate closeness of God.

Ambiguous. We are not “black and white” thinkers, but instead affirm the ambiguity of experience and the value of learning to tolerate and embrace complexity and ambiguity in many aspects of human life and in the spiritual journey.

Open-minded. We are people of a questioning faith. We search for wisdom in many places and encourage people to listen to each other and to bring their honest questions to their spiritual life.

Intuitive. We are at home in the world of image, symbol, myth, ritual, and the arts. Very few Anglicans write systematic theologies. Instead we are writers, poets, pastors, and musicians.

Aesthetic. We believe that beauty is a doorway to truth and goodness and therefore a doorway to God.

Moderate. We avoid extremes, believing that a godly life is one that is disciplined, balanced and temperate.

Naturalistic. We have a reverence for nature and its rhythms. Anglicans believe in working to protect the natural world and its creatures.

Political. We believe that Christian life has political implications and that civic life is both a legitimate and important place to struggle with and engage our faith and values.

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When I was about eight years old, my mother ordained that I should go to the little Episcopal church that was only a block away from our house. In former days I had gone to a Lutheran church with my sister, but since getting married she had ceased to go to church at all, let alone to be available to take her little sister along. So my mother talked to an elderly neighbor of ours and arranged that she would pick me up on Sundays and take me to church, the Church of the Advent. You might notice two things about this arrangement: I didn’t have any particular say in the matter, and my mother did not go to church herself.

Fortunately for all parties, I soon decided that I liked going to an Episcopal church. Everything about the weekly high-church communion service, which was called a Mass, took hold on my imagination: The candles and incense, the flowing silk vestments of the priest, the stately language of the prayers, and the music, bravely sung by a small all-female volunteer choir. Two years later, I joined that choir and continued to sing for most of the next decade.

I am old enough that the Prayerbook and Hymnal which were to form my spirituality indelibly were the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940, the products of a church that still called itself “Protestant Episcopal”. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that the Prayerbook taught me to use subordinate clauses, punctuate, and conjugate the English verb in both singular and plural. Almost all of those traits can be seen in the Collect for Purity which began every Mass, and which I can easily type from memory:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I learned about language from the Prayerbook, about the beauty and flexibility of the English language. When I encountered Donne, Herbert, and Milton as a precociously young college student, I was more prepared for them than I might otherwise have been because the Prayerbook had made their language mine.

The Prayerbook taught me how to read, how to write, and how to pray. The 1928 book gave me the collect, a literary form as tight and succinct as a sonnet or a haiku; the 1979 book, which was introduced into our parish when I was a teenager, gave me the Psalms. The Hymnal 1940 taught me how to listen and how to sing. It was and is an amazing compendium of Western church music, from Sarum plainsong to Negro spirituals, from Lutheran chorales harmonized by Bach to sentimental nineteenth-century tunes whose composers are justly forgotten, with a generous selection of the great composers and hymn-writers of the Anglican tradition: Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. We sang Gibbons and Tallis, “O sacred head” and “Were you there?” in my little church. I learned to hear and understand modal music, and to this day my ear is basically modal. I learned to stand up straight, hold up my hymnal, and sing over my music, not into it.

Thanks to the Hymnal 1940, and to friends at church who had a passion for English cathedral choirs and their repertoire, when I met my husband by auditioning for a choir he directed, I had exactly the sort of voice and training he wanted: A soprano who understand modal tuning and sang with a straight tone. I was an English choirboy in the body of a twenty-four-year old American girl. (To this day, if you ask my husband how we met, he will smirk and reply, “She auditioned”.) But there was one more book in my childhood that had a huge formative influence on me spiritually. It happened to be a book about Roman Catholic nuns.

Rumer Godden is best known for a novel about nuns in India, Black Narcissus, but that wasn’t the book I read. It was her other novel, about an abbey of Benedictine nuns in England, In This House of Brede. Inspired by the memoirs of Dame Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, this remarkable novel tells the story of Philippa Talbot, a widow with a high post in government who gives it up, at the age of forty, to become a cloistered contemplative nun. The reader is plunged along with her into the ancient rhythms of monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict some fourteen hundred years ago: Short sleep, plain food, hard dull work, and hours and hours of prayer, both in private and in the great sung daily offices which Benedict called the opus Dei, the work of God.

My first introduction to the book was through that strange artifact, a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. The volume you see on the left contained not only Godden’s novel, but The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts, about Katherine of Aragon, Coretta Scott King’s memoir of her life with her husband, and a couple of other “condensed” titles. I read Mrs. King’s book and Lofts’ novel, but I read about Dame Philippa and her sister nuns over and over.

Then one day I discovered the original, unaltered version of the book on the shelves of my local library branch. My tolerant and wonderful librarians had no problem with my checking out adult books, and that was just one of many books which I borrowed repeatedly to read and re-read. Decades later, working at the central library of the system, I came upon the book on the discards-for-sale shelf; I bought it immediately, took it home, and discovered it was, in fact, one of the two copies formerly owned by my old branch. I have it to this day.

I am happy to say that the book is still in print and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Godden’s account of a community of women, engaged in singing prayers and loving God while also eating, cleaning up, taking care of their sick, and running a print shop and weaving vestments for sale left me with a lifelong love of the monastic life, of daily prayer based on the Psalms, and of the delicious trivia of Latin words, parts of the habit, Gregorian chant. The most important thing I learned, however, was simply that one could be a deeply religious person without being a fanatic or a freak. Philippa and her sisters, committed to their odd lifestyle in the midst of a modest English town, are neither saints nor neurotics; they hide secrets, bear grudges, struggle, fall and get up again. And they relate to one another, and to the small circle of men who contact their enclosed world, with love, honesty, forgiveness, integrity.

Another thing I learned, which has never been clear to me until very recently, is that In This House of Brede showed me that a book about women, a book about female characters, could be as interesting as any book about men. And while a book about women who style themselves brides of Christ might not exactly pass the Bechdel test, it’s a book about women that doesn’t revolve around sex, romance, attempts to get married, attempts to get divorced, having children, or even going shopping. Godden even handles the tricky issue of inappropriate bonds between the nuns, portraying a sensual yet not quite erotic attachment between Dame Maura, in charge of the abbey’s music, and young Sister Cecily, a brilliantly gifted singer. When Dame Maura oversteps good boundaries and her feelings frighten the younger nun, she accepts the Abbess’s suggestion that she go to a sister house in Canada where the nuns need help restoring their practice of the chant, returning five years later to a mature and stable Cecily who can handle their feelings wisely.

Another thing I love about this novel is that the male characters, while few in number, both stand up to the women as characters and relate to them with respect. Philippa, the protagonist, is supported by the friendship of a former male co-worker; Abbess Catherine is refreshed by her encounter with a famous sculptor who creates a new altar and a statue of Our Lady for the abbey. It’s no surprise that the reviews on Amazon are hugely enthusiastic; the only negative one is a critique of the current edition rather than of the book itself. One reviewer actually says that if he or she lived in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they would memorize and preserve this novel.

Spiritual guidance from books is not, as I would learn later, an exclusively Anglican or even exclusively Christian experience. But the formative influences of these three books is probably why, after trying many other spiritual paths, I am an Anglican again, today.

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Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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(I originally posted this at my old blog; I’m reposting it here as the first step in writing about my personal history of religion.)

My first memories of anything religious are of a Lutheran church.  My sister, eleven years older than I, had been confirmed at a Missouri Synod church in the neighborhood with the entertaining name of Martini Lutheran.  She was still a church-goer when I was five or six and she was sixteen or seventeen, so I went to church with her. I can’t remember whether we walked there, or whether someone picked us up and drove us.  My sister, like me, has never learned to drive.  We probably walked; I have a vague memory of not wanting to hold my sister’s hand, but no memories of what houses or streets or cars we walked by.

The emphasis at Martini Lutheran was on Sunday school. All the different classes had a sort of mini-church together and then separated for their lessons. We got lots of handouts with pictures and learned lots of Bible stories, and we sang songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. Even then, I think, I liked the singing part the best, and somehow I had the courage to ask if I could be in the choir. I must have sung for the organist, and I was allowed to join even though I was a year younger than the official minimum. I suppose I had two advantages: My precocious reading ability, which meant I could follow the words of hymns, and the ability to match pitch.

Rehearsals for the choir were regular, but appearances in the liturgy were infrequent. We had cassocks, I think, dark red, with white cottas or surplices over them, and red skullcaps. I remember scurrying across a courtyard or something, from one building to another, to enter the church proper. I have a vague recollection of very dark wood, of a white-haired genial preacher (who may or may not have been the pastor), of not really knowing what was going on. There was little connection between the Sunday school and what the adults did in church, as worship.

When my sister was eighteen, she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Polish Catholic boy she had met doing amateur theatre. For the pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, the Reformation was not over; he sat in our parlor and informed my mother that he was not going to allow a Catholic priest at the altar of his church. “Your church?” said my mother. “I thought it was God’s church.” She threw him out, and my sister and her fiance were married in German Catholic church two blocks away from us, by a very liberal, rather hippie priest who was a friend of the groom.

So I didn’t go back to Martini Lutheran after that. As it happened, there was an Episcopal church barely one block away from our house. My mother had sung in an Episcopal church choir as a young married woman, until she became pregnant with my sister; she sang through the pregnancy, then did not return to the choir. She arranged for an elderly neighbor who was a member at the Episcopal church to walk me there; I suppose I was seven or eight by then. Every Sunday I walked the single block to church with our neighbor, crossing our street and one other, and went into the back door that led to the parish hall of the Church of the Advent.

Advent was different from Martini in several important ways. First of all, my Sunday school class attended the first half of the Sunday Eucharist, which was called Mass. We left after the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (although we didn’t call them by those names) because we weren’t allowed to take communion yet. This was the early 1970s, and in our diocese, at least, the sacrament of Confirmation was still regarded as the admission to Communion; consequently, I was confirmed when I was only nine. Nowadays most Episcopal kids, like Roman Catholic kids, have some kind of class to prepare them for First Communion, and are confirmed much later, as teens, when it can be more of a personal decision. Second, the choir at the Advent sang every week. It was a very small amateur choir of women and girls only, but they were up in the chancel leading the communion service and the hymns every week. Pretty soon I wanted to be a part of that and joined the choir for the second time.

Being allowed to attend at least part of the weekly Mass meant that I was exposed to three important influences: The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1940, and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I can’t stress enough how much this heritage of literature and music, coupled with the drama of the Mass, laid down the pattern for my spirituality to this day. Every week I saw people wearing cassocks and surplices, doing special things in a special part of the church; every week I put on a vestment of my own, a red skirt, white cotta, and a lace “chapel cap” (think doily-on-my-head), and joined them up there in the chancel; every week I saw our rector in a damasked silk chasuble, a glorious tent of color, standing at the altar and opening the service with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Every week I sang music that ranged from medieval plainsong through seventeenth and eighteenth-century tunes by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas, Tallis, Henry Purcell, and J.S. Bach, to nineteenth-century Victorian melodies and early twentieth-century composers such as Healy Willan, that great godfather of Anglican liturgical music, whose “Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena” is known to every Episcopalian I’ve ever met. Every week I saw candles lit, heard stately poetic language, saw ritual gestures made, and partook of sacred food. Nothing can erase the impact of that formation of my spirit. Show me mediocre language, bad music, clumsy ritual, and I will turn you right off. I know how it ought to be done.

The Prayerbook and the King James Bible taught me how to write, how to make subjects and verbs agree, how to handle relative and dependent clauses, how to use the colon and the semicolon as well as the comma and the period. The Hymnal taught me that music was bigger and wider than what came out of the radio, bigger than my sister’s music or even my parents’ music, which was big band and jazz. It taught me how to sing plainsong and harmonies based on the fifth rather than the third and prepared me to discover medieval music, Renaissance polyphony, and the English cathedral repertoire. The architecture of the Church of the Advent taught me how to sing, how to stand, how to hold my music up and sing over it, not into it, and how to define a space with my voice. My whole spiritual journey is built on my encounter with Anglicanism at age eight.

I’ll be coming back to explore my experiences at the Advent, and other parts of my religious history, in more detail. Stay tuned.

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