The parish in which I currently minister has been on a journey in the past decade towards more traditional liturgy. It was for a number of years a standard mixed-use parish with a Rite I early service and Rite II later service. My predecessor introduced a traditional language Rite II service taken largely from the Anglican Service Book, which effectively reintroduced some of the classic elements of the traditional Anglican service of Holy Communion, including the Comfortable Words and the Prayer of Humble Access. Since my tenure, a thoroughly Rite I service has been implemented at both services. This was a rather more modest change inasmuch as one of the biggest obstacles to traditional liturgy is the language. Hearing it for the first time is like hearing a new type of music — the ear has to grow accustomed to its rhythm and harmonies.
As part of this move towards consistent use of Rite I, the traditional Prayers of the People were introduced (1979 BCP, pp. 328-330). I think it is one of the more under-appreciated prayers from Rite I and the Prayer Book as a whole. In the older Prayer Book tradition it was called the Prayer for the Church. This name was derived from the opening invitation of the prayer: “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth” (1662 BCP). Though not alive to witness it first-hand, I understand that when the current Prayer Book was introduced, there were armies of progressive priests who couldn’t wait for this particular piece of Cranmer’s prose to be excised on the liturgical chopping block.
Since I was first exposed to this prayer on a routine basis in my late teens, it has increasingly gained my respect and admiration. There is no question that it is less overtly participatory and requires more concentration than the litany-style Prayers of the People from Rite II. While these issues initially appeared to me as obstacles, the prayer has had the salutary effects of making me realize just how easily the mind can wander and of giving me a taste of what concentrated intercessory prayer might look like.
It is a powerfully dignified and thoughtfully worded intercession, but I like to think of how in this prayer there is a journey through space and time. Allow me to explain: the prayer takes us through space by moving from the universal to the particular — we pray first for the universal Church throughout the world. Then, there are prayers for civil and religious authorities — the leaders of our nation, our state, and our Church. Then, we commend to God those whom we know to be suffering in any way, and then finally, we remember the departed and ask for grace to follow their good examples. Through the course of the prayer, we move from praying for the world to remembering the needs of our local cities, towns, and communities, and finally to the needs of our own homes and families. In this way, we travel through “space.”
The prayer also moves through time: we by necessity name our historical moment (who is the president, who is the bishop). These things belong to the past because those who hold those offices began to do so at a certain time in the past. Then, we remember those who are currently in distress or trial, and this is the present. Finally, we remember the departed and ask for grace that we might share in the greater life with them. This recalling of the dead might seem to be looking back at the past, but in fact, the emphasis in the Prayer Book tradition is on what their earthly lives might mean to those who are still living, we mortals who are trying to figure out how to live in the light of God, using their good examples as aids and models. In this way, this final commendation of the departed directs us to the present moment and to the future world to come when we will share together in that greater life. In this movement through time, we are reminded that our lives have a goal: eternal communion with God. God is the telos of our existence, of our church — of the Church, and of the world.
We are born in a particular historic moment, we have trials and troubles to witness and to suffer, but we are called to the glory of heaven. Each time we say this prayer, we are invited to take once again this journey through time and space that leads to God. By learning how to travel on this journey through prayer, we begin to see that not just this short prayer but our whole lives are leading to God: our lives have a goal in and with God.
The featured image is “Longines pocket watch” (2011) by Gerry Lauzon. It is licensed under Creative Commons.