a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.
Which is why I think our friend Dick would value this feast day so highly. He and other Deaf people struggle for the right to be included, both in society in general and in the Church. They seek opportunities to worship in their own language, the language of Signs, the language they best understand and through which they most naturally express themselves. They yearn for full access to the Church’s worship and sacraments. While some churches may offer services interpreted in Sign Language, Dick and the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf are seeking not merely to have services that are designed for hearing people translated for them, but to have liturgies that are created by and for Deaf people,liturgies that allow them to participate fully, in their own language, and in ways that reflect their unique culture.
The message of inclusion that is at the heart of today’s feast is extremely important to Dick as a Deaf man. He often reminds people of the words of St. Paul in Romans 10:
“… how are [people] to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (vss. 14-15)
Dick points out that Deaf people (and other groups) can only “hear” and believe the Good News when it is proclaimed in a language they understand. I am certain that Thomas Cranmer would appreciate and fully support what Dick and the E.C.D. are trying to do in making worship accessible to those whose first language is Sign Language.
We celebrate this important breakthrough in the liturgy of the Church – worship in the language of the people – in this feast which reminds us of the need to reach out to all people and to offer accessible worship to people of every language and culture. The liturgy we celebrate here, in the language that is most accessible to us, is a sign of the Kingdom that issues its invitation and welcome to all. Today’s feast calls to mind that the Church’s worship is not for us alone, but for everyone, regardless of language or culture or race. It is meant to unite rather than divide. “When I am lifted up,” Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.” We offer thanks today for Thomas Cranmer and others, whose work highlights this great truth, and for Dick and others, who work on behalf of those who have yet to gain access to the worship and sacraments of the Church.
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