Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Why people use the classic B.C.P.

For the purpose of this discussion, I shall include with those who use the classic B.C.P. of 1662 or 1928 those others who for necessity's sake use what are usually described as the traditional language texts from the American 1979 Prayer Book, the English Common Worship 2001 and similar books. That is, texts which use the older form of standard English and refer to the Deity in the second person singular as Thee, Thou, Thy and Thine, even if they are not identical with the texts in the historic Prayer Book.

It seems to be the case that many but not all people, who attend traditional language services by preference, have as their primary reason (usually in an undefined way) what we may describe as a social, cultural and political conservatism. They live in a world and in a church where many of the morals and values that they inherited and cherished have been set aside or radically revised. So the use of such language that recalls this inheritance is preferred for public worship. And its use brings a certain amount of inner satisfaction and contentment - much more than they get if they go to the "contemporary language" service later in the morning.

It is difficult to tell what proportion of those who are motivated by a conservative outlook also appreciate the fact that the traditional texts contain "strong" even "harsh" doctrines that are avoided or softened in the contemporary texts. These doctrines relate primary to the place and condition of man before God, Creator and Judge, and of what Jesus Christ achieved for man as the Redeemer of the world.

For example, man is portrayed as a guilty sinner in the most vivid of terms (e.g.,"miserable offenders") and his internal condition is described as being so diseased that "there is no health in us". There is no place in the historic B.C.P. for the modern emphases on self-worth, self-affirmation and self- actualisation, but, rather, man is exhorted to find his true worth in his relation to God as a forgiven, adopted child of the heavenly Father. And, the recognition and confession of his sinfulness and sins and his total dependence upon God's mercy are seen as the beginning of the praising of God, the righteous Judge. Thus there is great emphasis upon the once-for-all sacrifice and atonement of Christ at Calvary and of his Exaltation into heaven as the Victor over Satan, sin and death as the basis of a right relation of sinners to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Mediator.

What I am saying is that to take the basic services of the classic B.C.P. seriously (literally) is to be committed to much more than a cultural conservatism. It is to be committed to a Western, reformed Catholic way of understanding the Scriptures, of worshipping the LORD in spirit and in truth, of the Sacraments and of the devout and holy life. Thus with the conservatism of outlook there also naturally goes what used to be described as "the God-fearing man/woman."

As one who has ministered in congregations where there is a general social conservatism existing hand in hand with the use of traditional texts, I am deeply aware that the Christian message, the basic Christianity, the biblical truths, can easily be hidden behind or within the traditional language. That is, it is so easily possible to savour the words of a confession, an exhortation, a prayer and a collect and in so doing only to savour the words as words. Where this occurs one's mind and heart miss the probing power of the truths that the words contain and are intended to convey. If the devil has anything to do with it, I suspect that this scenario is chiefly the case where the words describe our true condition before God and what we are called to do to gain his favour and blessing. (Such mortify us and we do not like to be mortified in spirit!)

Let me add a couple of comments.

First, the fact that a traditional form of service can be used in such a way as to avoid its true content and message is no reason for not using such services! Rather it is a reason for the priest and officiants to be much in prayer and to conduct the service in such a manner that the spirit overcomes the letter in their presentation and delivery, and thereby the spirit of the text speaks to the spirit of the worshipper.

Second, of all services to use merely at the level of the letter (to cherish the words and not to feel their power working in the soul) that of the Order for Holy Communion is the most dangerous to us as we stand before God. My point here is well conveyed by the content of the Exhortations in the BCP which are appointed to be read to those who intend to receive. If only half of what they declare is true then to eat and drink without the right motivation or for the wrong reason (e.g., cherishing only the tradition and
words) or unworthily is one of the most dangerous things we can do in this life!

Let us use the classic B.C.P. on its own terms as a means to the worship of God in the beauty of holiness.


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