The psalm at Evensong today (136) was one of my favorites as a boy. As in most English parishes then, Evensong was a weekly occurrence, and the congregation knew the tune and the pointing without aid of the music or a pointed psalter. I had no idea who Og was, but the name was wonderful.

By attending Evensong I was following in a tradition begun by Thomas Cranmer himself. His ambition was to turn England into a monastery in which all recited the Offices daily and were immersed in prayer, the psalter and the annual reading of the Bible, divided into days. At the same time, by use of the Christian Year, the people were to pray into the great deeds of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. England was to become a holy nation. It is easy to dismiss such an ambition, because we abhor State Churches, believe in separation of church and state, the virtue of choice and thus dismiss the prayer that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord Christ as poetic hyperbole.

No lesser “Catholic” than +Michael Ramsey wondered whether the Parish Communion movement, by placing the Eucharist at the heart of Sunday worship, took away from the less committed and occasional conformists an opportunity to pray in and with the parish without totally committing themselves to the beliefs of the church. Be that as it may, the demise of Evening Prayer in the form of corporate worship ( and perhaps Morning Prayer earlier on Sunday morning) takes us a long way away from a vision of a holy people.

Add to this the growth of denominationalism in the Episcopal Church, and even the vision of an inclusive holy church tends to disappear. A denomination has an agenda, and may embrace its own approach to what it means to be a church. Contrast this with the older Anglican notion that we become the church corporately through baptism and we grow into being the church as, in corporate worship, we are immersed by the Church, taught by the Church as the Word is heard and absorbed and fed by the Church in the sacraments. (a denomination may contemplate administering the sacrament to the non-baptized: the church may not.)

Note also that our Reformers and their Elizabethan successors were much more intent on the Word being heard in the context of public worship than in preaching. Preachers have the liberty of the pulpit and may depart from examining the assigned lessons, a habit of the Puritans, and expand on almost anything. They were prophets warning about modern Episcopalian preaching!

Our loss, or failure to employ the gifts we have been given contained in the Prayer Book, Calendar and Christian Year makes us ill-prepared to evaluate the issues of the moment.

The concept of a “holy” church sounds to many as something like a collection of self-proclaimed “righteous” folk. That’s off-putting, and so it should be. Nevertheless we continue to say that we believe in a holy church every time we recite the Creeds. The word “holy” has in its origin the idea of a people separated to a task, and specifically a people called by God to be an example to the world to whom God would minister and restore to unity with Himself. God called Israel to that status and ministry as recorded in the Old Testament. It was an uncomfortable identity and mission and thus Israel often tried to escape such a calling, or interpreted it in terms of being better than non members of the God club. In short they became chauvinists and chauvinists usually become corrupt and amoral.

The Gospel invited all peoples into such a calling and mission. I’m not sure we have done better than Israel. A denomination certainly doesn’t fill the bill, for a denomination, by singling out its special identity adds to or replaces elements of the Gospel and denies thereby the right of all who hear the call to be “Catholics” rather than sectarians. Every time I hear our church described as anti-fundamentalism or Roman Catholicism I shudder. Being “anti” something is a poor and meager “Gospel”. When I hear our church described as a denomination I cynically contemplate the lamentable accuracy of such an accusation.

On the other hand, as long as the Prayer Book is used regularly -I use the term “regular”in both its meanings – Cranmer’s vision of a holy church and a holy people isn’t entirely lost. Indeed the liturgy is a wonderful antidote to novelty, however persuasively articulated from the pulpit. The power of God to speak to us in corporate prayer, as we hear the Word and are incorporated into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is actual and powerful. It is for this reason, among others, that those contemplating schism, however tastefully defined, should think again. A religious body identified by its opposition to another even if it retains episcopacy and the liturgy, is something narrower and exclusive than the holy church. It is a sect, however right it may seem to be about an issue or issues. It is a sect if it leaves the church in self-proclaimed virtue. It is a sect even if it is expelled from Communion and fellowship because it refuses to live in mutual submission with others because it regards its mission to be virtuous. Neither option demonstrates faith in the God of the church who again and again has lifted up the Church in the midst of the years and whose Son was much more clear about unity than about heresy.

If we were a holy people we wouldn’t be at this moment of crisis. If we exercised patience and honored those with whom we disagree we might go forward to discover that God’s purpose is quite different from our own agendas. It is high time we made it our vocation again to live into our historical vocation, to be merely the church placed in a particular place for all people.

One Response

  1. Yes, we’ve been saying this for such a long time now.

    It’s nearly impossible to find daily Morning or Evening Prayer in the parishes any longer – and both “sides” in the current argument are equally derelict.

    We’re trying to do something about it.

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