For us today, the use of “Amen” can be commonplace in public worship and have little meaning other than being the way of completing a prayer. But it was much, much more than this for the English Reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and, I suggest, it ought to be much, much more for us today.
In The Book of Common Prayer (editions of 1552, 1559, 1662, 1928 & 1962) when the Minister alone says publicly a Prayer then the “Amen” at the end is printed in italics to indicate that all present are to say it. However, when the Prayer—e.g. The General Confession of sins—is said by all, Minister and people together, then the “Amen” is in regular type, indicating all say it.
“Amen” is from the Greek and means “truly.” So at the end of a Prayer, when said by all, it has the meaning: “we agree; this is really our prayer; these are our praises, thanksgivings, petitions and intercessions.” By “all” is here intended not merely the accumulation of the individual persons, but also the assembly as the local Body of Christ and Household of God and Faith.
For the laity, worship in the pre-Reformation Church of England was primarily attendance at the Latin Mass. Here the laity was expected to get on with itsr own individual devotions via Rosary or Primer as the priest at the altar offered the Mass in Latin. Only at one point were they expected to leave their individual prayers (indicated by the bell) in order to watch and listen to the priest; and this was when he raised aloft the Host (the Sacring) and then said the Pater Noster. For the laity, it did not matter that they had no understanding of the Latin Service, all they needed to know was that it was offered by the Priest for himself and them and their duty was to pray their own prayers as he did his duty. Their active participation nor their salvation were required for the Mass to be the Mass.
Cranmer and his associates saw worship very differently as a corporate activity and they were deeply committed to making it possible for the laity to understand the whole service and to give their assent to the prayers offered on their behalf. This is why they moved to the use of English and emphasized the importance of the “Amen.” Thus the people, having heard the prayer and believing it to be the expression of their thoughts and feelings, said in unison, “Amen.” Or, after saying the prayer with the Minister, they joined him in saying, “Amen.” Since worship was seen as the act of the Body of Christ, Minister and People had all to be involved and to be so in harmony and unison.
The Reformers went back to the Early Church to look for justification in the writings of the Fathers for their emphasis upon the corporate nature of worship. They often quoted St Chrysostom’s advice: “Unless the unlearned understand what you [the Minister] pray, he is not edified, and neither can he give consent unto your prayer; you throw your words to the wind and speak in vain.” For them the Roman, Latin, medieval Mass was not only erroneous in doctrine but it also “threw words to the wind.” They wanted to do much better, true to the Bible and the Early Church.
Today, in a culture where the holding of private opinions, and particularly on moral and theological matters, is seen as an aspect of maturity, the place of the “Amen” (as being approval for the content of the Prayer) is automatically seriously challenged—and is so whether the Prayer be the ex tempore prayer of the Baptist preacher or the reading of a Collect by an Anglican Priest.
It is probably the case that many churchgoers do not see saying “Amen” as giving their approval before God and one another to the content of what they have heard. For them, it is merely and only a ritual expression and the right thing to do.
However, if we engage in a biblical study of the use of “Amen” we quickly realize that it was a word used by Jesus himself: “Truly, truly [= amen, amen] I say unto you…” (John 14:12; 16:20 etc.). Our “Amen” is not to be used lightly and this fact ought to make us careful both to read set prayers in advance before saying the “Amen,” and to listen carefully to ex tempore prayer before providing our “Amen.”
The “Amen” remains the unique moment when all the assembled Body of Christ can unite in offering their Prayer to God the Father in the Name of his Son and by the Holy Spirit. But its proper use and effectiveness require a general doctrinal and moral agreement in the congregation.
At the end of his The City of God, St Augustine looks forward to the life of heaven and writes: “All our activity there will be Amen and Alleluia. There we shall rest, and we shall see; we shall see, and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end, and shall not end.”
firstname.lastname@example.org November 8, 2007