Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship -- Review

ADVENT, CHRISTMAS, AND EPIPHANY: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship. By Brian Wren. Louisville: WJK Press, 2008. xvii + 213 pp.

If you’re a Mainline Protestant and you have a fairly recent hymnal in your church you’ve probably sung a Brian Wren hymn or two. That is because he has been a prolific producer of progressive, inclusive, and firmly Trinitarian worship materials for some time. Wren is also Professor of Worship Emeritus at the Presbyterian related Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. He is, therefore, both poet and scholar.

Clergy and worship committees are always looking for new and lively worship resources, and with this being the beginning of the Advent-Christmas season it’s likely that there are those still out there looking for something new and appropriate. This could be what you’re looking for. Wren has provided congregations with – as the subtitle notes – “liturgies and prayers” for the season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. They are designed to be inclusive in their language but also deeply Trinitarian. He notes that he has tried to bring into play both the ecstatic and the economical. Reflecting both the sensibilities of prayers that are scripted and those that are unscripted, those that are brief and those that are expansive. The key is the manner in which they are used. They should reflect the oral culture out of which they are born: “Their natural habitat is as speech spoken and heard, not a text read silently on a page or grudgingly grumbled in a classroom” (p. xiii).

So that these prayers and liturgies do not become stale and stagnant, that is, “they risk being dead in the water it treated with – dare I say it – Methodist mumble or Presbyterian plod,” Wren provides guidance and direction for good reading. This is why he also lays the texts out in a way that is suited for proper public reading (pp. xiii-xiv).

The book includes all of the expected resources for the three seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. You will find readings for the Advent candle lighting (and placing Advent candle rings) ceremonies – through Christmas. You will also find responsive calls to worship, collects, and pastoral prayers. The resources are provided for each of the three lectionary cycles as well. Because he aims both for ecstacy and economy, the prayers and readings are sometimes brief and at other times are somewhat lengthy. Being that Wren is a hymn writer, it’s no surprise that he includes some new hymns and worship songs – with music provided for some of them by Susan Heafield.

The Christmas resources include the usual prayers and calls to worship, but there are also three complete thematic “Christmas services of Scripture and Song.” The model for these three services is the King’s College, Cambridge service of “Nine Lessons and Carols,” which dates back to 1918. Wren notes that unfortunately that service has hardened into a rigid tradition, the service remaining unchanged since. He writes:

Magnificent as it may be, the King’s College service has limitations. Taken from the (Authorized) King James Version, the archaism of its Scripture selections confines users to a ghetto of romantic religiosity that turns its back on the communicative power of the twentieth-century English translations like the Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Today’s English version, and others. (p. 86).

But the choice of translation is only part of the problem. There are also theological issues and a world-view that seems to be pre-Copernican. Therefore, what was intended as a way of providing a more imaginative worship experience has become stagnant. These new services are designed to give more flexibility, make use of modern translations, and provide new thematic directions. Year A is focused on the song “What Child Is This?”, while year B makes use of the “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as a thematic foundation – though Wren seeks to revise the reading and suggests an alternative tune. Finally, year C is entitled: “What if God was One of Us?”

The Christmastide resources go beyond Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and cover the subsequent Sundays taking the congregation into the New Year. Finally, there are resources for Epiphany.

Wren even finds room to slip in “A Short Communion Service with a Trinitarian Prayer of Thanksgiving. The “Prayer of Thanksgiving” seeks to draw out the various aspects of God’s Trinitarian essence. Using the opening phrase “Holy One, Holy Three,” he uses various Trinitarian constructs – “Spirit, Son, and Father”: Author, Word, and Breath”; “Lover, Beloved, and Energy of Love”; and “Giver, Given, and Gifting” (p. 179). To give a sense of his constructs consider this first “stanza” of the Thanksgiving Prayer:

Holy One, Holy Three – Spirit, Son and Father, you unfolded time and space and created us to love and be loved, to live on this earth, and tend to it for your glory. With all your heart we praise you and thank you.

Note the poetry, the theological focus, and the phrasing. Throughout the book, Wren lays out the prayers in such a way that if reprinted as printed in the book, those reading/reciting these prayers will have their phrasing laid out as appropriate.

If you like Brian Wren or you’re looking for some new progressive yet Trinitarian worship resources, this will be a good fit. I plan to use some of these resources this Advent-Christmas season. The bonus aspect of this resource is found inside the back cover. There you will find a CD with the entire book contained therein. There is no need to type out all of the prayers and liturgies – just copy and paste. But, the author and the publisher want you to use the resources in their entirety – no adaptions or abridgments allowed. They seem to understand that it would be easy for adapted versions to creep out into cyberspace. But, if you’re willing to abide by the rules, this is a great resource.


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