The feast we are celebrating today is distinctive from other feasts in the Church’s calendar. On this day we do not revere a particular saint or recall an event from the biblical narrative, as we do on so many other occasions. Instead, this feast day points us to a specific date in the history of Anglicanism – June 9, 1549, the feast of Pentecost – when the Book of Common Prayer was introduced in the Church of England. It draws us back to the time of the English Reformation and the brief reign of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and to an event which set the direction and course of Anglicanism for centuries to come.
Why are this date and this particular event so important as to warrant a feast day of their own? What cause do they give us today for celebration? I might suggest three treasures this feast holds for us: First, it is a celebration of our faith. Second, it is a celebration of our unity. And third, it is a celebration of our mission in the world.
Anglican faith is, in many ways, distinctive from other expressions of Christian believing. Anglican faith is primarily expressed through worship, unlike other Christian traditions which often look to ancient creeds or confessions as the source of their identity. Some of you might know that I was raised in a predominantly DutchCalvinist denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Churches in the Reformed tradition, like the CRC, find inspiration and guidance in the Heidelberg Catechism, a document which dates from 1563. The Heidelberg Catechism is conveniently divided into 52 sections, called “Lord’s Days,” which contain questions and answers about a range of theological ideas. In my childhood, it was the preacher’s practice to elaborate on one of these “Lord’s Days” each Sunday morning, usually for about 30 minutes! The Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort, were the statements of faith on which the Dutch Calvinist tradition was built. These historic documents articulated for us what we believed.
Anglicanism is different. Although we affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, our faith is expressed, first and foremost, in our worship. There is a Latin phrase for this: lexorandi, lexcredendi, which, loosely translated, means “the law of praying [is] the law of believing.” It refers to the conviction that prayer shapes belief, that liturgy forms theology. Anglicans express their faith through their worship. If someone were to ask you, “What do Anglicans believe?” the best answer might be to invite them to join in our worship. Our common prayer and worshipshape and express the faith of Anglicans more than doctrinal statements and creeds.
Today’s celebration of the First Book of Common Prayer is a celebration of that principle. It is an affirmation that, for us, the worship and praise of God, the glorification of God, must always be at the center. Not our own selves, not our work, not our causes, not even our friends and colleagues…but GOD. That is what it means to be “orthodox.” The word orthodox comes from the Greek compound orthósand dóxa, the “rightful glory” – not so much the rightful belief, but the rightful glorification or worship, of God. Orthósplus dóxa – it’s all about God, our rightful worship and glorification of God. It is from this that our theology arises.
The First Book of Common Prayer, then, along with its subsequent editions and variations, offeredus a way to order our worship of God and to express our faith. We are a liturgical church, and we celebrate God with words and forms drawn from our rich history. These words and forms were drawn together in 1549 by “a commission of learned bishops and priests,” but “the format, substance, and style of the Prayer Book were primarily the work of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (from) 1533-1556.”[i] Cranmer and the commission drew on a number of existing resources, simplifying them and ordering them to make them as accessible as possible for the people who would use them. This included translating them into English, the language spoken by the people, rather than Latin, the official language of the Church. This tradition of worshipping in the vernacular has been a distinctive mark of Anglican worship from the time we separated from the Roman Catholic Church up to the present day. Books of Common Prayer are used in Anglican or Episcopal churches in over 50 different countries and are written in over 150 languages.
As such, the Book of Common Prayer is valued not only as the primary expression of our faith and doctrine, but also as a symbol of our unity. We, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer. Although our languages and customs differ, we find unity in our scriptures and in our tradition, stretching all the way back to the beginnings of the Church, when early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”[ii] This feast of the First Book of Common Prayer, then, is a celebration of our faith and of our unity.
It is also a celebration of our mission in the world.
Our mission is really God’s mission. It is God who has created and who sustains the world, and it is God who is now reconciling all things in Jesus Christ. It is God who draws all people to himself through the life, death and resurrection of his Son, offering us forgiveness, transformation and hope. It is God who is at work in the world, healing and restoring and making all things news. And it is God who invites us to join in this great mission, this glorious cause, and to be agents and ambassadors of the Good News of God’s Kingdom in which all are loved and revered, and the beauty and balance of Creation is restored.
God’s mission is the transformation and renewal of all things. And the rightful worship of God is part of that mission. The Prayer Book and the tradition of worship it represents are instruments to be used for God’s glory and to God’s ends. As we Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “Our mission is to bring men, women, and children into closer union with God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit that he breathes into us.” We recognize that“Christ is already present in the life of everyone as the light of the world. It is our joy to serve all those to whom we are sent by helping them embrace that presence in faith. Our mission is being fulfilled as our prayer, worship, and daily life in community draw people into life in Christ. It is also expressed through ministries which demonstrate the wide range of the Spirit’s gifts.”[iii]
The end of our mission is God’s glory, and our worship of God in the Daily Office and in the Eucharist is an important expression of that mission. As our Rule states, “Our liturgical life is in itself a vital ministry. We lift up the Church and the world in prayer, and strengthen those whom we encourage to take full part in our worship.”[iv] Did you realize this: that you are carrying out the mission of God, here and now, in this service of worship?
It may be that we have taken these things for granted, that we have failed to fully appreciate the rich heritage we have been given. Perhaps we have failed to recognize the significance of prayer and worship in the mission of God. As we come forward tonight to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, we might recall our forebears in the faith, who in 1549 laid the groundwork for what we are doing here tonight. We might offer God our thanks for the rich faith tradition that has been handed on to us, for the unity that binds us together, and for the mission of God in the world in which we are invited to take part.
[i]Holy Women, Holy Men, p.398.
[ii] Acts 2:42
[iii]The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, p. 62.
[iv] Ibid, p. 32.
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