Can we learn from ancient prayer books?

Jul 3, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Why would a 21st century evangelical be interested in liturgy? asked Mark Earngey as he began his talk at Wycliffe Hall (on 11 June). An extrovert Australian, Mark is definitely not a nerdy academic, fascinated by church history for its own sake. His time in Oxford working on a DPhil and a book (both just completed) hasn’t affected his accent, his regular use of words like “mate” and “ripper”, or his commitment to see the church reflect Christ better.

Born into a Sydney Anglican churchgoing family, as a young man Mark rebelled against the Christian faith, returned to the Lord through a Pentecostal fellowship, and then found his way back to Anglicanism. Liturgy for him used to be associated with older generations, and an inauthentic expression of faith with repetition of words by rote replacing heart worship. Like many evangelicals he believed that liturgy creates a barrier to mission, an extra layer of weirdness for newcomers. But on reflection he realized that every church develops a worship pattern or liturgy, even if it’s not written down. What matters is preparation, engagement, and worship in the Spirit, irrespective of the form of words.

Many Anglican churches in Sydney, as in England, 50 years ago were ‘low church’ in practice, but still followed Prayer Book liturgy in some form. Things changed with the introduction of more informal forms of worship and music, and in Mark’s words, many threw the “baby” of liturgical wisdom out with the “bathwater” of dry formalism. Along with a colleague, who had also rediscovered the wisdom of the Christian heritage, Mark embarked on a journey of exploring the riches of liturgies from Reformation Europe.

He discovered that most 16th century evangelical leaders did not just preach, lead congregations and carry out pastoral care, but also wrote services of morning and evening prayer, and Holy Communion. Driven by a concern for teaching orthodox doctrine, encouraging warm heartfelt devotion to Christ, and avoiding the perceived disorder of Anabaptist worship, they used familiar medieval church forms (e.g., the Latin mass) and made them intelligible and gospel-centred, believing that regular repetition would infuse truth and love into the heart. But these prayers and rubrics were also elegantly crafted, often poetically balanced and theologically precise.

In his lecture Mark took us through brief biographies and excerpts of liturgies from well-known figures such as Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and also those I hadn’t heard of: Oecolampardius, Schwarz, Farel. While each ‘school’ had its different emphases, there were some key common themes, such as the concern to make a clear theological break from some of the ideas of contemporary Catholicism. For example, the Reformers’  liturgies of the Lord’s Supper distinguished clearly between the once-for-all atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world, and the sacrifice of praise and obedience of his people today in worship (as in the Book of Common Prayer).

There was a great deal of cross-influence: much of the language of the BCP is influenced by liturgies from Cologne and Strassburg (Mark prefers to use the 16th century spelling of this Franco-German border town), Wittenberg and Geneva. In turn Cranmer’s liturgies influenced the spread of reformed worship styles elsewhere.

What principles from this rich tradition can evangelicals learn from and apply today, as we think about our worship and teaching? Mark suggested that concern for theological accuracy: the right words written and spoken to teach, should always be balanced with constant pointing to the person of Christ the incarnate Word. In the same way truth should be spoken, but also somehow made visible, as in John Hooper’s description of Communion as “a visible word…that preaches peace between God and man.” There should be elements of creeds (historic statements of what we believe); prayers (words addressed to and from God with whom we are in relationship); and encouragements to put our faith into practice.

For many evangelicals today, could worship have perhaps become too casual, even worldly? The Reformers were in awe of God’s love for his people, and wanted their communities to rejoice in praise. But they were also concerned for purity, a focus on the holy God, the removal of selfishness and idols from the individual’s heart and the church’s assembly, particularly for Holy Communion.

Why does formal use of liturgy in church often go together with an individualism and absence of community? asked a listener from a European Lutheran background. A very good question – how many churches up and down the country see one or two worshippers at the BCP service sit in a back pew, alone, and then slip out before they have to greet anyone? This reminds us that the promotion of good liturgy needs to go together with evangelical reform in other areas of church life, and not become an end in itself.

The emphasis of Mark Earngey’s talk was on liturgy as a tool for worship, pastoral care, teaching and evangelism. But there was surely a prophetic element in the prayers of the Reformers, not necessarily always eirenic, saying clearly “this is right and this is wrong”. In the 16th century many of the rubrics and prayers were given as correctives to Catholic teaching of the time which obscured justification by faith – might new liturgies be composed today which bring biblical truth to bear on current controversies and confusions? I must ask him about that before he returns to his homeland.

Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey is published by New Growth Press.

A version of this article was published in Church of England Newspaper on 21st June.

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