By Wesley Hill
Anglican Christians often speak about the Book of Common Prayer as “the Bible arranged for worship.” Less often, perhaps, do we think about how “the Bible arranged for worship” is a matter of first-order theology. Anglicans can be reluctant to claim too much for our theological tradition. We cast deferential sidelong glances at the Book of Concord or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cognizant of our lack of a comparable confession. But in fact if the BCP is the defining document of our theological tradition, then it turns out that we do have a distinctive and significant theology to lay claim to, because to arrange Scripture as the BCP does — to place parts of it alongside other parts and thus invite reflection on their relationship, their resonance one to another — is itself inescapably, and wonderfully, theological. And it is theological in a particularly potent and important way.
Consider the service of Morning Prayer, Rite II, from the 1979 BCP. It begins with the recital of the Venite (Ps. 95) or Jubilate (Ps. 100). In these psalms, the Christian congregation takes up the words of Israel’s praise of her covenant-making God and says, “Come, let us sing to the Lord”; “Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker”; “Know this: The Lord himself is God”; and so on. In this way, we can see that, at minimum, the arrangement of Scripture for Christian prayer that is the service of Morning Prayer is already drawing us toward a momentous theological judgment.
“The Lord being praised,” writes Christopher Seitz in The Elder Testament, his new book summarizing his entire theological career, “is the Lord of the Psalter and of the Elder Testament.” And this means that Anglican prayer in accord with the BCP’s arrangement of Scripture arrives at an understanding that the Church has been inducted into Israel’s praise — she has been “grafted in,” as St. Paul’s metaphor has it (Rom. 11:17); she is piggybacking on those who have preceded her in tasting the Lord’s mercies. She has done what the prophet Zechariah foretold would occur when Israel’s Lord acts to restore Jerusalem: “In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8:23, NRSV). The Anglican Christian praying Morning Prayer has grasped the garment of the Jew Jesus and learned to call his Lord her own, and in so doing has learned a dizzying theological truth, one that took the best minds of the early Church years to work out.
More can be said. Shortly after inviting worshipers to pray another of Israel’s psalms, whichever one is appointed for that day by the lectionary cycle, the service of Morning Prayer then directs those praying to say, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.” The Lord — adonai, YHWH, Israel’s covenant God — whose perfections the congregation has just been hymning, is now addressed as irreducibly triune: He is Father, Son, and Spirit.
But — crucially — he has not thereby ceased to be Israel’s Lord. On the contrary, the BCP is pressuring those Anglicans (and other Christians) who make use of its arrangement of Scripture to recognize that the God of the Psalter is not other than the God who has made himself known as Father, Son, and Spirit; and, vice versa, that the God who is triune is one Lord because he is not other than the God of the Psalter. There’s no break in the flow: the psalm is prayed, the Triune Lord is exalted, and no conflict or tension between the two is permitted or encouraged.
It may be that some Christians need stronger medicine than the theology on offer in Anglican prayer books. I do understand and at times envy my Reformed friends who glory in their confessional heritage, just as I sympathize with my Catholic friends who often consider Anglican theology lamentably thin by comparison with theirs. But it’s high time we — appropriately chastened and reticent Anglicans that we are — held our theological heads high and recalled with confidence that our beloved BCP takes us, every morning, right to the heart of the most vital and serious of theological issues that the Church has ever had to render a verdict on.
Christians pray to only one God, the jealous God of Israel, who has, in these latter days, revealed himself in Jesus Christ — Jesus who called the one from whom he came Father, and who shares their Spirit with all who trust in him for salvation.