First Book of Common Prayer – Br. Curtis Almquist

Psalm 96:1-9
John 4:21-24

I entered the Episcopal Church as a young college student.  At the time, the Vietnam War, with all its passions and protests and confusions, was raging and horrific, but this was not perceived as a global problem, at least not by us students.  We simply needed to get out and the problem would go away. What did consume us students was something brand new, called “free love,” which had been amazingly discovered by 20 year-olds or so, whom I very much looked up to.  To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.  It was the epoch of credulity, it was the epoch of incredulity.  We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”i And I was on an insatiable quest as an overly-earnest young Christian who was – to use the language of the Psalms – hungering and panting and thirsting after God.

I had been raised in an evangelical church tradition where I had come to know what it is to be “born again.” But I continued to struggle with sin.  I was no ax murderer, but I knew very well, most days, what it was to miss the mark, what we here would call sins of omission and commission.  I loved God with all my heart… except when I did not, and I was desperately needing to reconcile my duplicity, over which I seemed powerless.  I was looking for a way to confess sin in my life, and, at times of greatest need, to find God’s grace channeled through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  At that point I didn’t know there was a Sacrament of Recon­ciliation.  I didn’t even know there were sacraments.  I remember a spiritual mentor quoting to me the words of Jesus when he began his public ministry, reading from the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”ii I heard those words with new ears; I desperately wanted to be set free.

The other thing I was looking for, quite related, was a sense of rootedness or groundedness in the same kind of tradition that had informed the Psalms, a good number of which I had even memorized.  There was one word, often repeated in the Psalms, that kept seizing my attention, a word that was, for me, inacces­sible.  The word is “worship.”  I craved worship, though I didn’t even know what that meant.  The craving was very deep.  It so happens that at this same time in my life, one of my childhood friends had only just dis­covered, now in her early twenties, that she had been adopted as an infant.  She never knew that before.  But there had always been something unidentifiable that she felt was missing in her life up to that point.  Something was missing; she didn’t know what.  She didn’t feel she quite completely belonged to the wonderful parents who had raised her.  Now learning that she had been adopted as a very small child, and then being able to meet her birth parents, she for the first time knew where she had actually come from.  Her life now fit together; it made sense.  She found her ancestral roots.  I very much related to this.  I had my own need to find my own spiritual roots.  I needed to claim my own adoption by God in ways which I had not yet experienced in life.  This mysterious vacuum in my own life was that deep: this craving for worship, for some­thing More, for some deep sense of belonging to a God who had – to use the language of Psalm 139 – who had “created my inmost parts; [who had] knit me together in my mother’s womb”iii, whom I could acknowledge and praise and worship….  I des­perately had to find the Way that connected me with the people of God down through the ages.  And with all that, I followed the lead of several of my college professors into the life and worship of the Episcopal Church.  I’m only guessing that my story might overlap with some of you here.  (The statistics show that the majority of us who worship in the Episcopal Church come from some other church tradition.)

Episcopalians – who are otherwise known as Anglicans around the world – have a distinctive way of doing theology.  In other Christian traditions the Christian faith is articulated through doctrines, through creeds, through magisterial authority possessed by designated leadership, which may unalterable or even infallible.  We as Anglicans most powerfully and clearly articulate our faith through our worship.  We follow an ancient Latin formulary: lex credendi; lex orandi – how one prays is how one believes.  That is, how we worship not only reveals what we believe, but how we worship ultimately informs what we essentially believe.  It is the worship and glorification of God that we must ever keep at the center… not our own selves, not our own work, not our own causes, not even our own like-minded friends and colleagues, but God.  That is what it is to be “orthodox,” which comes from the Greek compound orthós and dóxa: the rightful glory (not so much the rightful belief, but the rightful glorification of God).  Orthós + dóxa. It’s all about God, about our participating and leading others to participate in the worship and life and love of God, and in this, we as Anglicans form our theology.

There is a striking phrase in today’s gospel lesson, what John describes as “true wor­ship.” True worship is the engagement with “spirit and truth,”which can create quite of bit of tension.  Tension, though it is sometimes very uncomfortable, is quintessential or else there will be no freedom and no strength in the body.  Tension is necessary.  That is as true for muscles of the body as it is for matters of the heart and the life of the church.  (St. Paul even uses the metaphor of the “body” to describe the church.  Tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing but a necessary thing.)  It seems to me that we must seek to live in the tension that Jesus’ life among us informs.  Jesus’ arms on the cross are open very wide, for all, “for God so loved the world.”iv Not just our own little world in which we live, but the whole world.  When we gather around the altar, as we will momentarily, when we “lift up our hearts,” we are praying for the enlargement of our hearts to have space for all.  We do this in remembrance of Christ, and to the glory of God.

The distinctive of Anglican theology has as its source our prayer and worship, in lieu of doctrinal formulas and creedal statements.  We hold most dear our common prayer, and we draw on our Book of Common Prayer. No surprise.  The Book of Common Prayer – first produced in England in the vernacular in 1549 and then subsequently revised, translated, and republished many times in the Anglican tradition – spread throughout the world following the trade routes of the British Empire, by missionary efforts of the British, and then so many others around the world.  Our Book of Common Prayer is written in English because we speak English.  You may know that we brothers have the privilege of sharing in ministry in Israel and Palestine and in eastern Africa.  In those settings, we experience the Book of Common Prayer written in Arabic or in Swahili.  Over the years we have offered ministry in Haiti, where the Book of Common Prayer is written in French and in Creole.  We could even join Episcopal congregations here in the Diocese of Massachusetts who use the Book of Common Prayer written in Spanish.  And so it goes.

The Prayer Book follows the ancient pattern of monastic prayer, a tradition we practice here in this monastery.  The early monastic tradition followed the practice of prayer described in the Psalms: “Seven times a day will I praise you.”v And so at set times, from early morning until the night’s end, the day is demarcated with times to stop and pray.  The Book of Common Prayer incorporates four of those original times of monastic prayer.  In the Prayer Book are services called Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline.  The name “Compline” comes from the Old English meaning “to complete.”  Compline completes the day here in the monastery and, so we know, for many people in group settings and in the privacy of their home.

The Book of Common Prayer also includes liturgies, services, and prayers which mark the beginning and end of life and other important life transitions.  The Book of Common Prayer gives form and language to mark the joy that comes in the birth of a child and the grief that informs the death of loved one.  Liturgies for Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, for the ordaining leaders in the church, for the confession made by sinners, for healing the sick, and for marking the seasons of the church year.  We call all of this our common prayer, common not because it is mundane.  Quite to the contrary, much of the language is not only historic but majestic, with the cadence and sensitivity of fine poetry.  We call this common prayer because we hold it in trust, together.  It is common in the same way we speak of the Boston Common.  It belongs to us, not to me; it is personal, but not private.  It extends the breadth of our theology and the reach of our prayer beyond our own selves, and beyond our own walls to the entire world, which God so loves.  This is how we as Anglicans form our prayer: lex credendi; lex orandi – how we pray informs what we believe, and as members of a global community.

One last word.  The Book of Common Prayer incorporates a series of prayers called “Collects.”  This noun, Collect, comes from the same root as the verb, to collect.  These prayers collect the intention and desires of the gathered congregation, to prayerfully summarize our common hopes and needs in a way in which we can agree, using language tested and beautified in its repetition over the years, perhaps over the centuries.  The Collects end with a shared  “Amen,” which means, “so be it.”  This is a way for those gathered to give their common assent to what has been prayed on their behalf.  The Collects.  The Book of Common Prayer is filled with beautiful Collects, for most every occasion in life.  I close with a prayer for human family, a prayer so needed in these days where the common good for our suffering world is in such desperate want.  Let us pray:
“O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

i. From the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

ii Isaiah 61:1f.

iii. Psalm 139.

iv. John 3:16.

v Psalm 119: 164.

vi The Book of Common Prayer, p. 815.

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  1. Barbara Frazer Lowe on June 17, 2014 at 15:12

    Br. Curtis = thankyou; historical, applicable, supporting, wonderful sermon.

  2. John Gishe on June 17, 2014 at 11:54

    As a California Republican (a distinct minority group in the San Francisco Bay Area Episcopal diocese) I stay an Episcopalian because of this that you wrote: “In other Christian traditions the Christian faith is articulated through doctrines, through creeds, through magisterial authority possessed by designated leadership, which may unalterable or even infallible. We as Anglicans most powerfully and clearly articulate our faith through our worship….It is the worship and glorification of God that we must ever keep at the center… not our own selves, not our own work, not our own causes, not even our own like-minded friends and colleagues, but God.” I never thought how the BCP helps us keep the right focus on God, instead of doctrines. Thanks for your insights. Only discovering SSJE during Lent, I enjoy reading these homilies every morning!

  3. Anders on June 17, 2014 at 11:48

    Thank you Bro Curtis. My personal take on tension (aslo coming from an evangelical past) is the conflict of the serenity prayer. At the times when established=holy, do we accept thing we cannot change in church, or do we walk? How can we “let go, let god” after being shamed for not getting it with God (and church beliefs)? Can we really let our dogma get run over by our karma? So it is, I like your “lex credendi; lex orand”i , as well as the term collect, which for me simply means “to bring together fragments in community”. It´s all good.

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