I recently ran afoul of the rubrics – not seriously afoul (a minor “infraction” so my stole will not be yanked) and not truly of the rubrics themselves, but rather of the church’s traditional interpretation of the rubrics. I had followed explicitly the letter of the law as stated in the Books of Common Prayer 1662, 1928, and 1979 as well as in the ACNA’s Texts for Common Prayer. But alas, I had not accounted for Tradition, for those understandings and practices not codified in writing, not found in the rubrics, but only in the lives and memories and practices of the elders, things which must be passed down organically.
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil 4:9).
Sometimes the response to “Well, the rubric clearly states,” is “Yes, I see why you might think that, but that’s not quite the way the church sees it.” It is possible to follow the rubrics exactly as the letter specifies and yet be, if not quite wrong, then at least not quite right: faithful to the letter, but slightly missing the spirit. “That’s not the way we do things,” can be felt as a stinging rebuke or received as a blessed invitation. “Then teach me, please, how we do things,” is the proper and grateful response – grateful to be included in the we who do those things.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
I’ve become convinced of this: A Priest’s Handbook and Prayer Book Rubrics Expanded notwithstanding, the only way to truly learn the priesthood is by immersion in the life of the priesthood and by taking one’s place – and a humble place at that – in a supportive community of clerical mentors. Watch the Godly elders, for they are the incarnate tradition of the church and its priesthood. What you will not find written in the rubrics, you will find written in their lives, in a letter written not in red ink on paper, but by the Spirit of God on the human heart (cf 2 Cor 3:3). Practice what they preach and preach what they practice, and all manner of things shall be well.
In Now and Then Frederick Buechner writes:
In the last analysis, I have always believed, it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves. In some box in the attic, or up over the garage, I must still have notes on the lectures I heard given by Niebuhr, Tillich, and the rest of them. It would be possible to exhume them and summarize some of what struck me most. But though much of what these teachers said remains with me still and has become so much a part of my own way of thinking and speaking that often I sound like them without realizing it, it is they themselves who left the deeper mark.
It may be that the rubrics are the boxes of lecture notes in the attic of faith and practice, and that their chief virtue is being the vehicle through which we come in contact with the teachers who become such a part of ourselves that we often sound like them or think like them or pray like them or serve like them without even realizing it. Thanks be to God for the deeper mark.
What is true for the priesthood and the priest is true for the life of faith, it seems to me, and so is true for us all.
We learn the faith not just by reading the rubrics of the faith – necessary as that is – but by immersing ourselves in the life of the church and by taking our place – and a humble place at that – in the koinonia of the body of Christ, amidst a community of spiritual brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, elders and mentors. The Christian life is a thing passed on, and passed on organically. Catechesis is necessary; koinonia is essential. Christian truth is incarnate truth. Watch and learn. Try and fail and try again. Become part of the living tradition of the church.
Rubrics – of many kinds – are necessary, but they are rarely sufficient. They cannot envision every eventuality; they cannot embody every nuance of faith and practice. They must be focused by the corporate memory of generations of the faithtful, they must be fine-tuned by the lives of flesh-and-blood, here-and-now saints. And they must be interpreted by One who leads us into all truth.
I am glad that I misinterpreted a Prayer Book rubric. It is a happy fault for it drew me deeper into the tradition and into the blessed company of those who preserve it and pass it on.
John is a Knoxville, Tennessee native and was a third generation member of the Christian Church, where he served as deacon, elder, and teacher. He and his wife, Clare, were drawn to the Anglican Church by the rhythm of the daily office, the richness of liturgy, and the presence of a sacramental worldview. John was ordained to the priesthood in May 2015. He looks forward to continued ministry at Apostles Anglican Church. John and Clare have one daughter who is currently in college studying secondary science education.