Words for Worship -- A Review

WORDS FOR WORSHIP: A Classic Anglican Prayers.  The Liturgical Commission of the Church of England.  London:  Church House Publishing, 2012.  Xii + 68 pages.

            I grew up an Episcopalian which meant using the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer in worship, though we also used alternative liturgies as the church moved toward a new prayer book liturgy.  I also focused my doctoral studies on 18th century English Church History, with a focus on the ecclesiology of high church Anglicans.  So, it seems natural to pick up and consider the merits of a book on the liturgical expressions of the Church of England.  While there’s no mention made here of Thomas Brett or Thomas Deacon, two important Nonjuror activists and liturgical scholars, this is a book that takes history seriously.   The Anglican tradition has always sought to blend tradition and innovation, and this fact is true today even as it was true at the time of the Reformation.  Changes to the liturgy are being made, but there are also important resources present here that have fed and nurtured generations of the faithful.  So, how do you keep the balance?

            In Words for Worship, members of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England set out to explain the meaning and history of the words used in worship, connecting the new with the old.  They connect the current Common Worship with the Book of Common Prayer that has defined the identity of the Church of England since 1549.  For the Anglican tradition Prayer Book worship more than doctrine has defined their identity. The first Prayer Book was published in 1549 and was the work of Thomas Cranmer.  When this book proved insufficiently Protestant and Reformed, a second Prayer Book was published in 1552.  That book would prove to be the foundation for future editions, though the Nonjurors much preferred the 1549 version (but that’s a story for another time).

            In this book we find chapters that lift up the basics – The Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, etc. – responses to scripture readings, texts for Communion, the Nicene Creed, Gospel Canticles, prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, Classic collects and modern collects (collects are prayers designed to carry the concerns of the people to God).  There is a preface by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and an afterword by the Bishop of Wakefield, Stephen Platten.  In each of these chapters we find forms of prayers and confessions old and new, along with commentary on the history and placement of these prayers.  Thus, for instance, we learn that the Sursum Corda (“The Lord be with you, and also with you . . .) dates back to at least the third century, and has been found in the liturgy of the Church of England since the Reformation in both longer and shorter forms, that the opening greeting was retained in 1549, dropped in 1552, and restored in the 1928 Prayer Book.  The Commission then notes:
These words express the truth that the focus of worship is heaven itself, where Christ reigns.  Christian worship is the meeting of heaven and earth, as we join “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” (p. 14).
            Why this little book?  Well, for one thing, it provides a number of useful prayers and explanations for how they have been used and are currently being used.  If for no other reason, one may find in this book prayers that will speak to the heart.   At the same time the book seeks to address the reality of a changing church, where fewer persons are truly familiar with the riches of the church’s liturgical traditions.  Rowan Williams seems to be of the mind that we needn’t deny those who are new to the tradition or to the church in general the riches of this tradition, simply to make things easier for them.  Thus, “as men and women grow in love and understanding for God, they will need more and more resources to carry their thoughts and feelings and to feed their imaginations.  This book offers materials that has stood the test of time in Christian experience, and promises to enrich the discipleship of all who use these words” (pp. vii-viii).

            The point made by the Archbishop is important.  There is a growing sense in the Christian community that we need to keep rekindling the flame of our traditions, lest we lose that important connecter to our own origins in the faith of Jesus.  The idea of “ancient-future” worship and faith is a good expression of this.  The Book of Common Prayer has been updated and modified over the centuries, but it retains a certain dignity that reminds us that worship involves reverence for God.  That doesn’t mean it’s stodgy, it just means that we remember that God is worthy of our praise and our obedience. 

            Even if you’re not Anglican, check out this little book.  It may prove to be a blessing.


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