By Austin Gohn
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” —Psalm 122:1
I might have also been glad, but I was anxiously trying to find the right page, only to find instead that I was sitting while everyone else was standing. It was my first day with the Book of Common Prayer, or the Red Book as I would somewhat affectionately come to call it. This particular version was approved for use in the Episcopal Church in the Year of Our Lord 1979, the same year McDonald’s released the Happy Meal on the American public. One would slow us down, the other precisely the opposite.
With those opening words from the psalms, Morning and Evening Prayer were now part of my life. I was non-denominational both in upbringing and current pastoral identity, with full intention to remain as I was, but I was attending a seminary in the Anglican tradition. All I knew about the Anglicans was what Wikipedia had told me on the day before I applied. All I knew about the Book of Common Prayer was that John Bunyan wanted nothing to do with it and spent 12 years in prison as a result. And here I was, surrounded by Anglicans, worshiping with a book that the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress refused to use, because it was an Anglican seminary, not a non-denominational one, that paid for my education.
Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.
My first sin (or mistake, at least) was my failure to stand at the appropriate time just seconds earlier. All the standing, sitting, and kneeling was, for my first semester, the bane of my liturgical existence. Up until that first day with the Red Book, I had known only two postures, sitting and standing, with an occasional, infinitely varied posture of standing with raised hands. Kneeling was new to me, but I appreciated the worn, turquoise pillows for the rookies, like me, whose knees had never been used in worship.
Only from within the rhythm of sitting, standing, and kneeling was I able to see that my previous forms of worship suffered by failing to attend to the body as much as they attended to the mind. James K.A. Smith, the non-Anglican patron saint of many Anglican liturgists, reminds us often that humans are more than brains on a stick. We have arms for raising, knees for bending, lungs for responding, tongues for tasting, and ears for hearing. What we do with our bodies shapes the direction of our hearts. To bend the knee, then, helps my body make sense of what it means to confess. Standing or sitting simply will not do.
The confession of sin was the first thing I knew I loved about Morning and Evening Prayer. It feels good to confess. To humbly repent of what we have done and what we have left undone allowed me to leave the past in the past, the day with the day, and the night with the night.
To confess with others, “the grumbling, lisping, rumbling, droning, hoarse, melodious, piping, muttering, murmuring, whispering, bellowing voice of the congregation together,” as Francis Spufford narrates in Golden Hill, was to remember that there is no one holy and blameless here. To receive absolution when a priest or one of the Purple Shirts was there, even though I believed this kind of absolution was unnecessary, left me with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes in Life Together as the “assurance of forgiveness.” Yes, I know Almighty God extends mercy to me when I confess my sins directly to him, but I know that Almighty God has extended mercy to me when I hear a priest declare it over me.
Lord, open our lips. And our mouths shall proclaim your praise.
The Psalms are meant to be prayed. To merely read the Psalms, as one reads another biblical book like Exodus or Mark, is to miss the point. The prayer book invites us to pray all 150 of them because it’s in the Psalms that we find ourselves or, at least, more poetic versions of ourselves. We find ourselves in feelings we didn’t know we were feeling, in words and phrases we didn’t know we were allowed to say. We find ourselves in the hallelujahs and the how longs. We find ourselves in the unbracketed “out of the mouths of infants and children, your majesty is praised above the heavens” (Ps. 8:2) and in the bracketed “happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9). The Psalms teach us how to feel and through our feelings, whether lovely or appalling, how to pray.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I had grown accustomed to choosing my own “Bible Reading Plan” since I first began to enjoy reading Scripture as a 17-year-old. Some years I would read through the whole Bible; other years I would focus on a few books. I knew that what I was reading was most likely different than what another friend might be reading, but as long as we were all reading something it was okay with me. It’s the YouVersion world, which is far different than the common world we find when we use the lectionary. In this world, I know that what I read or heard this morning is the same as what my friend Mark read in Alexandria and what my friend Deanna read in Ambridge. And, if I miss a day of lectionary readings, I just move on; it’ll come back around again in a few years.
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
In my non-denominational tradition, we describe ourselves as creed-less Christians or, more specifically, as Christians with No creed but Christ! Creeds and confessions, our founders Barton Warren Stone and Alexander Campbell said, were divisive. If we could just get back to the Bible, they thought (and many still think), we would find unity. It’s not that we cannot affirm the individual points of the creed, but rather that we struggle to affirm the existence of a creed at all.
I still believe they were right about many of the reasons churches resist communion with one another, but when I actually started reciting the creeds with others I saw that the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are actually what protect the biblical Christianity my church movement had tried to achieve. The creeds are not a substitute for the Scriptures or an addition to them. Rather, the creeds emerged from the Scriptures and, like a map, they help us explore the heights and depths of the biblical terrain without falling off any theological ledges. Yes, they are no guarantee for orthodoxy, as recent history has made clear, but they can’t hurt.
Reading the creeds from the Red Book quickly morphed into reciting the creeds by memory. It wasn’t just the creeds, though. It was the Venite and the Confession. It was the Collects for Mission and the General Thanksgiving. At one point, I knew the liturgy well enough that I was able to save the day by doing one of the readings when a lector had failed to show. I had memorized these parts of the liturgy without any effort, just by showing up. The common accusation is that repeating the same words week after week is nothing more than a rote exercise, devoid of feeling, akin to a child telling his sister that he loves her because his mom told him to say that. For some, that might be true. Repetition, though, is how we learn. It’s how something gets inside of us. It’s how the creeds, among other things, weaseled their way into my heart.
The Lord be with you. And also with you. Let us pray.
At the conclusion of Morning or Evening Prayer, I’ve found myself praying for things I would not normally pray for. These are called collects, a word from the liturgical foreign language I have been learning for three years. In praying some of these, or in having some of these prayed on my behalf, I have prayed for the renewal of life and for peace, for the Church and for the world, for those who are far off and for those who are near. These prayers have drawn me upward out of myself, out of my urgencies and self-preoccupation. They have taught me to pray for others as often, if not more often, as I pray for myself.
I have been through at least 300 services of Morning or Evening Prayer at this point in my seminary life, but I still do not think the Book of Common Prayer will save the world. Some of my Anglican friends tend to think worshiping with the prayer book would solve all our problems, just as my non-denominational ancestors thought getting back to the Bible alone would do. It’s one thing to worship with the prayer book, but it’s another to worship it. I do believe, though, that worship with the Red Book, or whatever color it may become, can offer a corrective to the constant reinvention of the liturgy that happens in churches like mine. Do I need a book like this one in order to worship? Of course not. I’m with John Bunyan on that. But, does it help us worship? Absolutely.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.
Austin Gohn is a pastor at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a student at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Gospel-Centered Discipleship (gcdiscipleship.com) on Augustine’s Confessions and young adulthood.