Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book

In the next several weeks, the entire Bexley Seabury faculty will be showcased in an eight-part video series introducing on-line audiences to the spiritual practices of the Book of Common Prayer. We are working with the Rev. Chris Yaw, founder of ChurchNext, a start-up non-profit dedicated to exploring new platforms for Christian formation in dioceses and congregations throughout the world.  I filmed my four-part segment—on Scripture and the Prayer Book—yesterday in my Chicago office, with Chris behind the camera and my former parishioner Simon Carr’s beautiful painting of the Transfiguration forming the backdrop. I like to think of this project as an excellent example of what we are calling our “seminary beyond walls.” Chris and I hope that our series will have widespread use in parishes and congregations around the country, as well as among individuals sitting in front of their laptops and connected to the Internet.  My gifted colleagues—Tom Ferguson, Jason Fout, Karl Ruttan, Ellen Wondra, John Dally, Suzann Holding, Milner Seifert—and I are proud of what we have accomplished, and grateful to be working for an Episcopal seminary where such innovative projects constitute our very reason for being.

To find out more about ChurchNext and the Bexley Seabury Prayer Book Series, visit the ChurchNext website.   And encourage your colleagues, friends and parishioners to consider subscribing to the series. The first four-part segment—featuring Dean Tom Ferguson on global Anglicanism and the Prayer Book tradition—is scheduled to be aired on-line next week. To give you a sense of what we are up to, here’s a preview of the script I wrote for yesterday’s filming. It’s a five-minute segment (one of four) focusing on “doing” Scripture through the Prayer Book. Let me know what you think.

Happy Eastertide to all.

Doing Scripture through the Prayer Book: singing psalms, shaking hands, pouring water, breaking bread

We have already seen how deeply the language of Scripture has influenced the language of the Prayer Book.  But it’s not just the language of the Bible that has shaped Prayer Book worship.  Even when Scripture isn’t quoted directly, almost every ritual action that the Prayer Book provides for in its rubrics (in effect its stage directions) exhibits what might be called scriptural resonance.

In other words, we not only read Scripture in the Prayer Book tradition; in many ways and in many forms we enact it.

To name just a few Prayer Book moments of scriptural resonance:

  • The dramatic pouring of water into the baptismal font, as the priest blesses it while speaking of Noah and the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea waters, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan
  • The laying on of hands at moments of blessing, or in the public service of healing, or during services of confirmation or ordination—perhaps the most frequently mentioned activity in the stories about Jesus and about the earliest days of the church
  • The anointing with scented oil during the rite of baptism, or with the oil of healing at times of physical or emotional crisis, reminding us of Jesus’ own anointing by Mary of Bethany, or of Paul proclaiming to his congregation in Corinth that “we are the aroma of Christ”
  • The sending forth at the end of Eucharist, echoing the injunction in Matthew to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations
  • The smearing with ashes on the first day of Lent, accompanied by the saying in Genesis that we are dust and will return to dust
  • The procession of the palms on the Sunday before Easter, a joyful ritual in response to the reading of the Gospel narrative of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem
  • The washing of feet at the Maundy Thursday liturgy, in keeping with Jesus’ mandate (in old English, his “Maundy”) to love one another as he loves us, to serve rather than to be served
  • The procession of the cross into the church on Good Friday, in response to the dramatic reading of John’s passion narrative and the solemn prayers of the people
  • The lighting of the Pascal candle at the Easter vigil, as we sit in darkness and hear the great Biblical narratives of our creation and our redemption.

As you can see, the list goes on and on.  Almost every ritual action the Prayer Book provides for has its roots in Biblical story and Biblical proclamation.

And there are also those key moments in Prayer Book worship when what we do and see is a direct response to a Biblical imperative:

  • when we pray the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught us to pray,
  • when we share the bread and wine after praying the very words that Jesus uttered at his last supper with his friends—“Whenever you do this, do this in memory of me”
  • when we pause at the start of our Eucharistic celebration in Rite I to hear the Great Commandment that Jesus gave us, quoting both Leviticus and Deuteronomy:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

To hear and follow these two commandments of Jesus, to follow them in our relationship with each other and with the world God loves: in the end, as Archbishop Cranmer knew, that is what Prayer Book worship—what Common Prayer—is really all about.

About the author: Jaime