Prayer: Our Connection

Prayer: Our Connection

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had his hands full. It was the middle of the 16th century and the Reformation was shaking the ground in the Christian West. Cranmer was managing warring Roman Catholic and Protestant factions within the English royal family and maneuvering through a treacherous political climate that would eventually turn him into a charred skeleton bound to a stake.

On the theological front, too, he was trying to strike a delicate balance. The question: how to structure a nation’s prayer life?

Since the day God commanded Adam to tend and guard the garden, man had been under a mandate to work. On the other hand, he was supposed to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Medieval monks had resolved the matter by living in a cloister, toiling through the day but breaking seven times during the day and night for prayer.

What works for monks, alas, does not work for farmers and shopkeepers, mothers and children. How could they live a life of praying in the garden while toiling in the vineyard? How could they be in the world and not of the world?

Cranmer found the answer. Various regions in England used locally produced missals and breviaries in worship. The archbishop took the best of them, that of Salisbury, and used it as a base for a standardized work called the Book of Common Prayer.

It was not accepted immediately throughout the Church of England, of course, and it went through some early revisions, the first one just three years after its original publication in 1549. But in a remarkably short time it became the standard work Cranmer intended. Across the length and breadth of England, parishioners merged their voices in lifting up the same praises and petitions to Almighty God.

Instead of the seven “divine offices” of the monastery, the BCP gave worshippers two daily offices, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Each included readings from the Psalter, Old Testament and New Testament, so that each household, whether going twice daily to the parish church or gathering at home, could cycle through the Bible each year.

As the Royal Navy took control of the seas, merchantmen followed, and missionaries and priests ranged across the globe in their wake. When the sun never set on the Union Jack, neither did it set on the Book of Common Prayer. Christians across the continents joined their voices.

Cranmer relied heavily on an ancient understanding in the church known as lex orandi, lex credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing. With the church that extended back to the apostles, he directed England – and eventually its farflung colonies – in the view that how Christians pray determines what we believe. That prayer would be undergirded by the Scriptures he positioned throughout both daily offices. The canticles, or sung prayers, and the creed come in response to those readings. Our service of Holy Communion operates on the same principles.

The cycle, then, is Scripture, prayer, belief, all done in community – as the body of Christ in church where possible and otherwise as a family in the home. The goal has been described as “monasticism in the world,” a life charged with Scripture and prayer at the beginning and close of each day lived out not apart from society in a cloister but in the open among our fellow citizens as a witness to our living God.

As startling as it might be to many in this age of customized Christianity, the New Testament gives us corporate prayer as the standard (though not exclusive) practice of the church. In Acts 2, the Apostle Peter promises the gift of the Holy Spirit “to you and your children.” The new Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers . . . Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common . . . So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people . . .”

For St. Peter and the other apostles, for Archbishop Cranmer and his collaborators, the goal was unity in the body of Christ. All Christians pray privately and extemporaneously, but we also sometimes pray wrongly. Using the time-tested prayers of the Book of Common Prayer that borrow either their very words or their theological ideas from the Holy Bible, we offer worship that is acceptable and pleasing to God.

The fractured church of the 21st century is the expression of a view directly counter to this one. Off-the-cuff prayers in the worship service have led to a proliferation of beliefs and a multiplicity of denominations. Even within Anglicanism, modern prayer books tailored to parochial tastes have frayed doctrine and driven wedges between provinces, within provinces and even groups within parishes.

In some quarters, however, Cranmer’s tradition survives. One new Anglican, a middle-aged teacher who had journeyed with her family through a number of denominations, said she was taking refuge from “radio station Christianity,” in which persons in the worship service pray “from the heart” as those on contemporary Christian radio stations do. “A lot of the time,” she  said, “it’s just plain wrong. I find that I begin to focus on that wrong thing and stop worshipping.”

Until our Lord returns, at least, Christians will go into our rooms to pray (Matthew 6:6), to pour out the secret passions of our hearts to our God. God’s purpose in history, however, is to bring together all of His people to pray with one voice (Isaiah 6, Revelation 4-5). He will not receive a performance by soloists or paid singers and musicians but an outpouring of joy and praise from the entire community of the redeemed. A God of order will entertain the perfect prayers of His perfected people.

Anglicans have a tradition of common prayer grounded in the ancient liturgies that incorporates the Scriptures and the doctrine of justification by faith. That practice allows us to ascend as a body into the divine presence. It is our heritage and our treasure, one worth preserving. Ω

The Reverend Edward W. Fowler