When it comes to “user experience” (UX) in the church, there’s often a lot to be desired.
To paint with a criminally broad brush, churches that do a great job making things accessible often play fast and loose with traditional Christian content. You get churches that look and feel like movie theaters or concert venues. Entertaining? Sure. Edifying? Idk.
But churches that do a great job maintaining the traditional content often do a poor job of making that content accessible. You end up with churches that have more coals in the thurible than people in the pews!
Put simply: high church or low church, Anglican or not, we all have some room to grow when it comes to maintaining traditional content in edifying form. As circumstances and languages evolve, this is an ongoing task requiring great discernment.
What can we all learn from the BCP? 4 lessons!
Today, I’d like to take a brief look at the “Preface” and “Concerning the Service of the Church” from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, highlighting some lessons we can all learn.
(Note: If you don’t have a copy of the 1662 already, I recommend that you buy IVP’s “International Edition.” However, below, I’ll be quoting from Brian Cummings critical edition of the 1549, 1559, and 1662 BCP.)
1. Strike the right balance between tradition and novelty.
The Preface begins:
“It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.”
In order to worship and proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation, we Christians need to stick to a middle way (a “via media”) between tradition and novelty.
If we make changes too quickly and without proper theological consideration, this can lead to “sundry inconveniences,” as the BCP puts it. This can lead to “more and greater than the evils, that were intended to be remedied by such change”!
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that “the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein” are “in their own nature indifferent, and alterable.” It therefore makes sense that, “according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein” by the proper leaders within the church.
2. Worship should be according to, but not necessarily limited by, the Bible.
Historically, Anglicans have taken issue with what’s known as the “regulative principle,” the idea that in worship we should only do that which is explicitly commanded or exemplified in Scripture.
Instead, we Anglicans have held to the “normative principle,” maintaining that, unless Scripture clearly forbids us from doing something, we should feel free to continue worship traditions that have good biblical and theological warrants behind them.
Notice, therefore, how the Preface to the 1662 BCP defends itself:
“For we are fully persuaded in our judgements (and we here profess it to the world) that the Book, as it stood before established by Law, doth not contain in it any thing contrary to the Word of God, or to sound Doctrine, or which a godly man may not with a good Conscience use and submit unto, or which is not fairly defensible against any that shall oppose the same;”
So, while we certainly shouldn’t play fast and loose with the Bible, that doesn’t mean, for example, that we can’t use a piano in worship because pianos aren’t mentioned in Scripture. (Yet this scriptural standard might very well mean that we shouldn’t sing certain songs in the context of Christian worship.)
3. Read the Bible!!!
No one enjoys a Scripture reading so lengthy that it’s a challenge just to stay awake for the whole thing. But, y’all, I honestly can’t believe how little of the Bible is read in certain Christian worship services. It’s a crying shame!
Notice how “Concerning the Service of the Church” (the original preface to the first BCP in 1549, btw) describes the main point of the common prayers in the early church:
“For [the Church Fathers] so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over every year; intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers in the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation in Gods word) be stirred up to godliness themselves and be more able to exhort others by wholesome Doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the Truth; and further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true Religion.”
Let’s prioritize both the public and the private reading of Scripture! We all need more of the Bible in our lives. Our patterns of prayer and worship should take us through the entire Bible regularly and systematically.
4. Keep it simple!
OK, so, somewhat ironically, what Cranmer had to say back in 1549 about overly complicated medieval prayer books still applies to BCPs today! There were so many rules and considerations
“that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.”
We need simple, elegant services and lectionaries (Scripture reading plans) so that we can get down to the business of reading, praying, and worshiping—without having to spend an inordinate amount of time just figuring out what we should read, pray, or say!
Yes, this means our Prayer Books should be kept simple, short, and “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding both of the readers and hearers.”
But it also means that we don’t need to create everything from scratch each time we worship! Too much spontaneity can be deadly—especially for the pastor who feels the pressure to come up with some fresh and new “order of service” (ahem, that’s a “liturgy”) each week.
Read: J.I. Packer’s “The Heritage of Anglican Theology”
Want to learn a bit more about the book before buying? Read Mark Brians’s Anglican Compass review of Packer’s book here.
That’s all for now!
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~ Josh Steele, Managing Editor of Anglican Compass