Pastoral Use of the Prayer Book Revisited

Pastoral Use of the Prayer Book Revisited

Note: One of my first book reviews for All Saints was of William Paret's The Pastoral Use of the Prayerbook. I recently asked John Mack, one of our newer members, to read it and write his own review. What follows is his reflections on this venerable book. Enjoy!    - IJR+


A dear teacher of mine, an old-fashioned high church Episcopalian, once told me that the “Prayerbook protects us from our priests!” I recalled this quip more than once while reading through the Pastoral Use of the Prayerbook, a 1904 pastoral letter from Maryland bishop William Paret to the young priests and postulants of his diocese. The quip almost serves as a favorable summary of the text, for Bishop Paret continually councils his students to worship within the boundaries of the Prayerbook and not make worship into an expression of a priest’s tastes and inclinations, above all to worship as Anglican priests of the American Protestant Episcopal Church. He displays an intimate familiarity with the rubrics of the Prayerbook and regularly refers his students to them, encouraging them to pay close attention to how the Church instructs them to worship. Of course, he refers to the old 1894 Prayerbook, and so some of his advice may seem dated or out of place, especially to us contemporary Anglicans. Our communion is fragmented both in terms of governance and liturgy. Bishop Paret’s book, then, may seem like a relic, a curiosity of an Anglicanism that no longer exists. It is anything but that.

In my short life as an Anglican, I have visited a parish where the Prayerbook is not used at all, and the liturgy is a hodge-podge of prayers from all around the Communion. I have visited a few others where the Prayerbook is used but in about the same way as we would expect Mr Collins, the vain, bumbling rector from Pride and Prejudice, to use it. In our muddled and confused Anglican world, Bishop Paret’s advice is timely, relevant, and refreshing. Perhaps most importantly, the Bishop is directing his students, and us, to be catholic Anglicans.

Nowhere in the text does Bishop Paret call himself an Anglo-Catholic. In fact, he has no patience for those depart from the Prayerbook for the sake of being “high-church.” He does favorably speak of some of the most cherished elements of the high-church tradition, especially regular Communion. He objects to those who call Communion “the Blessed Sacrament,” for he does not believe it accurate to label only one sacrament “blessed,” and, predictably, because the Prayerbook nowhere uses such language (the same objection is used, I think unjustly, against the lovely word “evensong”). He urges his young priests to celebrate Holy Communion weekly and Holy Days, but discourages them from adapting Holy Days from other traditions, or even from other Anglican provinces.

We do not need King Charles or King Edward or St. Chad or St. Dunstan in our American Calendar, nor do we need the fantasies and often unsound traditions which some other names recall. As for Corpus Christi and All Soul’s Day, they are not even on the English list, but taken bodily from Rome. Let them all alone. (pp. 41-2)

To those of us who are more comfortable with being “catholic” and less with being “reformed,” this passage may seem narrow-minded, provincial, or just too Protestant. Perhaps it is, but it also offers a profound insight into how Bishop Paret conceives of our identity as Anglicans. The heart of the passage is not that we should avoid being catholic. Rather, we should not try to define our catholicity by something that exists outside of our tradition. We are catholic when we conform to the received tradition. We are not more, but perhaps less, catholic when we step outside of it.

We should learn from other catholic churches. This Anglican, for one, believes that ought to be room for us to incorporate elements from other traditions that harmonize with our own. Some Anglicans find the rosary or the regular recitation of the Jesus prayer to be useful practices that draw us closer to Christ. But, as Fr. Martin Thornton argued in the 20th century, it would not be “more” catholic for us to dispense with the Book of Common Prayer in favor of the rosary or some other devotion. In fact, through their synthesis of Psalms, Scripture, the Creed, the Our Father, and petitionary prayers, the Daily Offices are perhaps more catholic than the rosary, which is essentially an individual’s meditation on Christ through Mary. The Offices are, at least, intended for corporate worship. Here we should listen to Bishop Paret. He wants us to be Anglicans and live out the fullness of our tradition. We cannot validate our tradition by ignoring it or by performing it badly. But the Bishop probes deeper than this. When he insists that priests do exactly what the Prayerbook instructs them to do, he is not being high-church, low-church, broad-church, or anything of that sort. He is not privileging either Reformed or catholic minded Anglicans. He is simply directing us to fidelity and obedience, virtues which should lead us to truly catholic practice. This advice applies to churchmen of any altitude! I remember a very low-church priest in a 1928 parish who openly disliked the old liturgy, and mumbled through the prayers of consecration like someone reading a tax notice. He was a sincere Christian, but I imagine that Bishop Paret would have some rather firm council for him, and would deal similarly with those Anglo-Catholics who reverently use the old Roman Missal. Not only do we believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church –we believe that we are part of it. The Prayerbook is our received tradition, our inheritance from the Church, and so we should use it reverently and well. The tradition forms us as catholic Christians. We should not try to manipulate the tradition to make it appear more catholic, or for that matter more Protestant.

This is an abiding theme throughout the book, and beyond this Bishop Paret makes two points that are very worth our attention (really, the whole book is full of good advice and observations). The first comes as an aside early in his discussion of the Daily Offices and the Litany. No service is complete without the Lord’s Prayer. Though many of us realize this intuitionally, I had never thought of it plain terms. Of course the Lord’s Prayer is the bedrock of common prayer, and it provides the consistency of all catholic worship. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are praying with Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians - we are praying with Jesus as He taught us. The spiritual wisdom which undergirds the Prayerbook understands this fact, and incorporates it into our daily worship.

The second point occurs in the discussion on the offertory. Bishop Paret takes issue with those priests who make a big fuss about the financial offerings of the parish, lifting them up, waving them around in a cruciform shape, but take little notice of the offered elements –bread and wine- which are about to become the Body and Blood. His worry is that ceremony, performed for its own sake, will lessen our reverence, and so he comes on this formulation: “let act and attitude and words go together (pg. 120).” Anglican worship is simple. There is ritual, there is plenty of room for ceremony. But this unity of action, attitude, and language lifts our worship from being mere ceremony, or feelings, or rote recitation. It is an orientation of our whole selves towards God.

Finally, I offer two personal hopes. Bishop Paret’s advice is well situated within what Martin Thornton called “the English School of Catholic Spirituality.” The right and regular use of the Prayerbook places us in a living tradition of prayer that stretches back deep into the Middle Ages, if not further. Arguments over ecclesiology or apostolic succession aside, the spiritual practices and rhythms inherent in the Prayerbook are unquestionably ancient and catholic. If we use the prayerbook, we not only will enrich our Anglican life, but may, hopefully, reestablish ourselves in the greater catholic tradition. As someone who hopes and prays that the schisms and occasional heresies now dividing the church will be healed, I find this to be an exciting prospect.

Last, as the West continues its lapse into decadence, I hope that Anglican communities, formed by the practices of the Prayerbook, will have the stamina and integrity to endure whatever comes next in our history. In place of the shapeless and self-indulgent sort of American Christianity that is, even now, caving beneath political pressures (either left or right), catholic Anglicanism, rooted in the Prayerbook, in Psalms, Scripture, and Sacraments, will surely prove more durable.

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